Meet Maggie Kane, founder of Raleigh’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant

Maggie Kane’s unique restaurant model welcomes diners from all walks of life
by Hampton Williams Hofer | photography by Joshua Steadman

When Maggie Kane first sat down to eat at a soup kitchen in Raleigh, the dining experience was different than what she was used to. “When I go to a restaurant, I get to eat whenever I want, have a choice of food and be served,” Kane says. At the soup kitchen, however, resources were limited—the menu, the allotted time, the seating. Meeting over a meal was still the best way to connect with her friends, many who were homeless, that she’d met while volunteering and working at local nonprofits. So she started taking her friends from the soup kitchen out for meals at restaurants. They chose to go to places like Golden Corral or K&W Cafeteria—friendly, casual spots where “we would sit for hours, have a meal, enjoy refills and no one ever told us to leave,” says Kane. “Everyone deserves that dignity.”

Starting from scratch
Kane, then just 23 years old, fresh off a degree in International Relations and Italian from N.C. State, had planned to move to Italy. But these meals shifted her gaze to her own city, where she’s lived her whole life. “Raleigh was a happening place to be… for people with money. It felt divided, and I knew that food was our tool to fix it,” she says. Based on her experiences, Kane founded A Place at the Table, Raleigh’s first pay-what-you-can café, where diners enjoy chef-prepared meals from a breakfast and lunch menu that includes items like sun-dried tomato quiche and Caprese paninis. If people can pay for their food, great, if they can’t, they can volunteer in the restaurant to cover the cost. Since the opening of the café on Hargett Street in January of 2018, A Place at the Table has provided nearly 11,000 meals to people in need.
When Kane first became interested in pay-what-you-can cafés (there are around 60 others in the global One World Everybody Eats network) she decided to visit the only one in North Carolina at the time: F.A.R.M. Café in Boone. Kane walked right in the door, found owner Renee Boughman and started asking questions. It’s what Maggie Kane does, and it’s why she’s a game-changer: she opens doors, she listens, she rallies.

On her 25th birthday, in November of 2015, A Place at the Table (APATT) officially received nonprofit status, after numerous trips to the Secretary of State office in downtown Raleigh (one time Kane went in the wrong door; more than once she brought the wrong papers). But that’s another thing about Kane: She’ll keep on coming back. “If you need someone to meet with you, to hear you out or help you, and you ask three or four times, they will probably say yes. But if they don’t, you just keep moving,” she says. Every time Kane met with someone in those early years, she would ask, “who’s the next person you can connect me with?”—a habit that helped her curate a diverse community of support for her cause.

Creating a community
These days, 40 to 60 volunteers come through the doors of APATT every day. It’s hard to know who is there for a free meal or not, because plenty of people with the means to pay still choose to volunteer, enjoying the relationships and community they find there. The pay-what-you-can model allows diners several payment options: they can pay the full suggested menu price, pay as little as half if needed, pay it forward by buying a meal for someone else, or pay for a meal with an hour of volunteer work in the restaurant—doing things like washing windows or clearing plates.
One particular diner who frequents the café used to come in every morning after sleeping outside, eat, then volunteer for his meal. He never talked. He preferred doing dishes, head low, meticulous in his work. One day, a fellow kitchen volunteer got him to say a little more than his name. “A few months later, you couldn’t shut him up,” Kane says. He doesn’t complete his volunteer work in the kitchen anymore, but instead prefers to run food to the tables, meeting people, interacting. It’s the crux of what Kane hoped to do, which is to feed people with not just meals, but community. Sherri Henderson, a volunteer, is often at the point of sale, taking orders. Like almost everyone in the café, she’s passionate about the mission and the community. One part of the nonprofit that Henderson particularly likes is the tokens: Anyone can buy a $10 token to hand out to someone else who needs food, which can then be redeemed for a meal at APATT. “I live in downtown Raleigh and take them with me when walking to events, to catch the train or walking my dog,” she says. Henderson once saw a mother and three young children in Nash Square Park on a particularly hot summer day. The foursome had been staying in the park for days, so Henderson shared tokens with them and pointed them to the restaurant, where they met Kane, who gave them more tokens. Like many families battling homelessness, this family was transient and soon moved on, but while in Raleigh, they had a place to eat, to escape the heat, to sit, to be served and to feel human.

Expanding service
In late fall, APATT plans to complete their expansion of the café into the space next door. The new addition means everything can get bigger: menu, seating capacity, employment and impact. Perhaps the best upgrade will be to the kitchen. Right now, chef Andrew Gravens works his magic with rudimentary amenities (think, a waffle maker and a sandwich press) and a lone, small oven with no hood, arriving at 4 a.m. alongside his sous-chefs to get cooking. APATT’s nine-person team, each of whom gets health insurance and is paid a living wage, contributes to the exceptional food and service. “We don’t just want to be one of the best pay-what-you-can cafés,” says Kane, “we want to be one of the best cafés, period.” Kane says Gravens’ work in the kitchen has been transformative; APATT is as much a part of Raleigh’s booming culinary scene as it is a destination for people who are food-insecure. Her favorite menu item is Smiling Eggs Benny—a take on Eggs Benedict that finds the poached eggs over a Belgian waffle, with maple hollandaise and a bacon smile.

APATT’s first Board Chair, Allison Connors, became interested in a nonprofit restaurant as a way to provide affordable, healthy food to help improve North Carolina’s rankings for obesity and Type 2 Diabetes. Connors, who now runs the Financial Development Committee, volunteers at the café several times a week. Recently, she offered a ride home to one of the volunteers who comes in most days to work for his meal. The man, who had learned how to mop from his father, a janitor, now does the mopping at APATT, with high standards for how it should be done. During the car ride, he told Connors what the café community means
to him: “He talked about how we are his family, how much he enjoys being there and how he will keep coming back,” she says, “And I feel exactly the same way.”

Now, at 28 years old, Maggie Kane has solidified a name for herself in both the nonprofit and Raleigh food scene, racking up a slew of awards, including the Triangle Business Journal’s 40 Under 40 Award and The Thad Eure, Jr. Memorial Award, which honors an individual who has made a significant contribution to the Wake County hospitality industry. Her work with APATT landed her a feature on The Today Show, she was named “Tarheel of the Month” by The News & Observer and she received the Outstanding Young Alumna Award from N.C. State University. “I want people to know that this is not me doing this,” says Kane with modesty. “It is Raleigh that made this happen—everyone who dined, donated, volunteered and brought their talents, the people who come every week… they are the ones who make this happen every single day.”

Building connections
Kane’s penchant for service revealed itself early. Her twin sister, Annah Deters, recalls living with Kane in college at N.C. State: “Each week she would run random errands to people living on the street or in low-income situations. She would make me go with her to deliver pizzas on cold nights or drop off things they needed.” And Kane doesn’t just hand out biscuits and socks; she sits down close, she looks people in the eye. “Maggie wants to know everybody’s story and how they got to where they are,” says Deters. “She sees every individual person.”

Kane’s engaging personality, along with her ability to create meaningful connections, is the root of her nonprofit’s success. One such connection she made was with Sean Degnan, co-owner of the restaurants buku and soca, an early supporter of her cause who now serves as chair of the APATT board. “This all happened because of Sean and his belief in us, and the support from his buku and soca staff, who helped us open our doors,” says Kane. Bill Halvorsen, a project leader and board member of Activate Good, who has been leading a team of volunteers at APATT, says the leaders there “work as if they are building a Fortune 500 business, but with the goal to do good and not profit.” He and his volunteers value the contact with the community they find there: “At the café, we work alongside people who are homeless, have food insecurities, are recovering or have some other challenge… It’s a great opportunity to get first-hand knowledge of the people who are in need.”

Thriving in place
A Place at the Table is thriving with a diverse array of diners, and Kane herself is usually a feature at one of the outdoor tables, where she greets most diners by name. She arrives at seven each morning and spends her days in meetings, planning for the future of the bustling café she wasn’t sure would ever be anything more than a dream. Every day, an older couple who lives nearby walks to the café to have coffee. Today, as they round the corner onto Hargett Street, a diner who sits outside reading poetry jumps to her feet. “Grandma! Grandpa!” she says, hurrying to embrace the couple. She is a young woman of color, in no way related to them, who just finished volunteering for her meal. They hug her and chat for a while before heading inside for smoky chipotle pimento cheese sandwiches and home-style chicken noodle soup.

There are doctors in scrubs sitting at the community table, next to a man who sleeps outside, who is chatting with a businesswoman on her laptop. “Everyone has to eat. Everyone wants to eat,” Kane says, “So why not do it together? Community just makes life better.”

For an inside look at A Place at the Table, click here.