Order Up: At Ellsworth cafe, it’s pay-as-you-can

Aug 9, 2017

It’s five o’clock in the morning on Main Street in Ellsworth, and it seems like most of the village is sleeping. It’s quiet and dark outside, but there is a light on outside The Front Porch Cafe.

Inside, Brenda Powers is getting ready for another day.

“Usually I get here about five,” she explains. “But on mornings when I’ve got to be upstairs to waitress, sometimes it’s four, depending on what all I got to do.”

Brenda Powers takes a lemon meringue pie out of the oven. She's been working at The Front Porch Cafe for the past 6 years.
Credit Dan Wanschura

This morning, Brenda has to finish baking a couple lemon meringue pies, their second-most popular flavor behind coconut cream. They also serve up varieties like cream cheese brownie, rhubarb, and raspberry.

Customers come from places like McBain, Petoskey and Gaylord for a slice.

“We make all of our pies from scratch, and I think people like the good, old-fashioned stuff,” says Brenda.

After she’s done baking, Brenda heads upstairs to waitress for the early morning breakfast crowd; it’s a mix of tourists, campers and locals.

“While I’m down here baking, I can do a lot of praying for people,” she says. “And I like waitressing ‘cause then I get to interact with people, [and] I get to pray with people. I really like that.”

The Front Porch Cafe was started by a group of local churches in 2008. They held a fundraiser, and raised enough money to start paying the mortgage on a vacant restaurant building and the appliances inside.

The cafe is a pay-as-you-can restaurant. The idea is to have a gathering place for the community, and to serve people who are hurting.

“So we really don’t know who pays and who doesn’t,” says Sheila Dillon, a board member for the non-profit cafe. “Unless they’ve come to us with a special need and asked for help.”

Once you’ve eaten, you get a receipt in a black folder. That receipt gives a suggested donation for your meal.

If you can, you put the money in the black folder and leave it on the table. If you can’t, you leave the folder and walk out.

“There’s no questions asked, and we don’t care,” says Sheila. “That’s our mission.”

The Front Porch Cafe is a pay-as-you-can restaurant.
Credit Dan Wanschura

That mission can be hard for some people to fully grasp. One day, a guy came in without much money. He said someone stole his wallet.

He ordered a meal, ate it, and then was scrounging through pocket change to try to pay for his meal. Sheila told him not to bother.

“And I went back and said … ‘Put your money away, it’s no good here,’” she says. 

The Front Porch Cafe isn't concerned with people taking advantage of the pay-as-you-can policy. 

“I think people take advantage of everything,” says Sheila. “All I can pray is that one day they’ll pass it onto somebody in a different shape or form.”

At about seven o’clock, a steady stream of customers stop by. A group of regulars gathers around a circular table near the back of the cafe.

“This is also known as the Table of Knowledge,” says Dick Weiland.

The Front Porch Cafe is a non-profit cafe, and was started in 2008 by a group of area churches.
Credit Dan Wanschura

Dick is 88 years old, and farmed in Ellsworth for 40 years. He says Ellsworth used to be a bustling farming community. It had a couple of grocery stores, three gas stations, and the buildings were occupied. 

But since then, agriculture has shifted away from smaller, rural communities like Ellsworth.

“It’s not just Ellsworth, I mean you can find it all over the Midwest,” Dick says. “Towns are just dying, you know. And that’s one thing about this restaurant, it keeps this town alive, really.”