The Pittsburgh Foundation

Food for ThoughtNew Kensington pay-what-you-can cafe fosters "commonality"

Bryce Williams, an intern at the CFWC from Mt. Pleasant, serves Knead Café diners Sara Yohe from New Kensington and Jane Glenn from Lower Burrell.

By Maddy Rice,
a communications intern at The Pittsburgh Foundation.

New Kensington residents Kevin and Mary Bode had the perfect name for their new project, western Pennsylvania’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant, but they had not found a location until they came across a fading Pillsbury Flour mural painted on the side of 1011 Barnes Street.

“We looked at the building, and lo and behold, on the side was the Pillsbury mural. It felt like it was meant to be,” Kevin says.

Knead Community Café, which opened Feb. 25, does not have conventional pricing for its freshly made soups, salads and sandwiches. Instead, the menu states a suggested price. While many diners pay that amount or more, others pay what they can, or they pay their bill by working at the Café. To keep the operation running, the kitchen and dining areas are staffed by volunteers who share the Bodes’ commitment to helping neighbors.

“Our mission is to build community,” Kevin says. “Knead Café is a place where people come together, work together and serve their neighbors. That means a lot.”

Community members from all walks of life can enter the Café to find a good meal and great company. Whether it’s in the dining room or the kitchen, people treat one another as equals.

“Their paths may never have crossed before, but they find commonality,” Mary says. “Everything’s done with dignity and love.”

The space is not only for those in need of a healthful, low-cost meal, but for anyone looking for conversation and good cooking. Diners don’t know if the person next to them is paying with cash, or by volunteering hours, and they don’t know if the person working in the Café is donating time or working off a bill.

The restaurant blurs the line between those who are experiencing food insecurity and those who are not, and that dynamic helps the Bodes in leading a community dialog about hunger by empowering those who visit.

“We’re embraced as a safe place to go,” Mary says. “You can come in here without being judged.”

“Our mission is to build community. Knead Café is a place where people come together, work together and serve their neighbors. That means a lot.” 
--KEVIN BODE

Mary is a native of Tarentum, across the Allegheny River from New Kensington. She met Kevin, who was born in Baltimore, while they attended Towson University. They moved back to Pittsburgh and have been married for 30 years.

Kevin has worked for Northwestern Mutual for 30 years, the last five as a retirement planning specialist, and says part of the motivation for the project was to spur economic activity.

“It’s an area that needs a lot of help. Most former steel towns do, but New Kensington needs it more than most.”

For Phil Koch, who heads The Community Foundation of Westmoreland County, where Kevin is a member of the advisory board, it was the couple’s personal commitment that stood out.

“Kevin and Mary have been willing to lay their own time and treasure on the line for the development of New Kensington and the people living there,” Koch says. “It was the investment they were making personally in the region. They didn’t wait to get foundation dollars to start; they went on their own.”

The Bodes have committed more than $100,000 to the Café, with The Pittsburgh Foundation committing $100,000 over two years and the CFWC contributing $35,000. To underscore the redevelopment commitment, the couple sold the dream home they built 11 years ago and bought a smaller house downtown while Kevin relocated his offices to the Café building. “We have come full circle to where we started in New Kensington 30 years ago,” Kevin says.

“When you think about the blight that exists on Fifth Avenue, that level of investment is significant,” Koch says. “The Café not only addresses issues of food insecurity, it demonstrates that ingenuity and commitment can bring a neglected space back to life.”

Original story appeared in Forum Quarterly - Fall 2017