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As a onetime manager on duty at Morton’s Steakhouse in Minneapolis, Anna Wienke came to appreciate the idea of good service. Not just bringing customers their food, but making them feel respected, like they deserved to be there.

Plating meals at St. Stephen’s men’s homeless shelter as a volunteer, though, she noticed that the level of service so common in fine dining establishments — and that feeling of respect — was lacking.

“The more I was there, the less comfortable I was with the way we were doing it,” said Wienke. “Sitting in the big room, communal-style, nobody was really engaging with each other. There were a lot of heads down. A lot of muscling through the meal.”

Then she remembered Morton’s and decided to bring a bit of the steakhouse to the shelter. One night, she started grabbing glasses and refilling beverages, clearing plates and calling the residents, “Sir.”

Provisions Community Restaurant is Minneapolis' first pay-what-you-can eatery.
Provisions Community Restaurant is Minneapolis' first pay-what-you-can eatery.

Provided, Star Tribune

“It just really changed the attitude of the men there,” Wienke said. “Over time, I started having more and more ideas about how this could be a really different experience.”

Wienke’s approach that night drove her to action. Almost two years later, she is opening Minneapolis’ first restaurant where diners pay what they choose. Or nothing at all.

Provision Community Restaurant (2940 Harriet Ave. S., Mpls., 612-208-0461, provisioncommunity.org) is slated to open by the end of August.

One thing Wienke, 44, appreciated about her time volunteering in shelters was the opportunity to mingle with the people she served, getting to know them over a plate of food.

“It changed me and my perspective, spending time sitting down and having dinner with these men,” she said. “I consider it a gift.”

Inside the pay-what-you-can Provision Community Restaurant.
Inside the pay-what-you-can Provision Community Restaurant.

Provided, Star Tribune

It was her goal, then, that Provision offer everyone a seat at the table, “not just people that are all experiencing the same situation,” she said. Anyone is welcome to show up for one of two seatings at the small restaurant — it seats 30 and doesn’t take reservations.

Provision won’t be the first of its kind when it opens. It’s part of a network called One World Everybody Eats of about four dozen community cafes across the United States that use potential food waste to feed those in need. One in Stillwater, Our Community Kitchen, serves breakfast.

It was important to Wienke to create a place for a sit-down dinner, rather than a food pantry or soup kitchen that hands out sandwiches to people who are experiencing hunger. After all, restaurants these days are a part of life.

“We don’t even think of dining out as a luxury anymore,” Wienke said. “To not be able to participate in that part of our culture is an unfortunate thing. Living in a shelter, there are all these ways that I can imagine people don’t feel a part of their community — their world.”

If guests are so inclined to make a contribution, they can. It’s not required.

A plate by Kenny Beck.
A plate by Kenny Beck.

Provided, Star Tribune

Wienke has calculated that if 12 people each night give $20, the restaurant will pay for itself. So far, Provision is supported by fundraising and pro bono construction from local firm Hunerberg. The local restaurant group, Jester Concepts, pledged to give 1% of its sales for a single month to Provision each year. Minneapolis firm Shea Design lent its services to transform the space — the former production kitchen of Salty Tart bakery — into an intimate dining room and conversation lounge. Even furniture and flatware has been donated.

“We like to say everything about this whole place is eclectic,” Wienke said.

The food, served family-style, is donated from the Good Acre, Co-op Partners Warehouse, local farms and restaurants. For that reason, each day’s menu will be a gamble for chefs Kenny Beck and Heather Mady. As a staple, they’ll get creative with rice and beans; meat and dairy will depend on what’s delivered.

“It’s almost as if our chef has an ‘Iron Chef’ moment every single day,” Wienke said.

Dinners will be offered Wednesdays through Fridays, at 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., with brunch on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and noon.

Once a month as a fundraiser, seats can be reserved for one dinner service at $50 per person. Those dinners will feature a presenter on topics such as sustainable living and hunger. Star Tribune columnist Beth Dooley will be presenting at the first dinner Sept. 18.

Wienke knows her unique restaurant can’t solve such large-scale problems alone. But she wants to get the conversation started.

By serving only 60 people a day, “we know that we’re not personally tackling the issue of food insecurity,” she said. “That is a huge undertaking. Our hope is that we inspire awareness around the issue.”

And she wants to make sure that everyone — whether they’ve experienced food insecurity or not — has the chance to enjoy a great meal, together.

“We need everybody here,” Wienke said. “We need to make people that are in need feel that they’re a part of their community. They’re seen. They’re not relegated to a certain area of the city in a church basement where nobody has to look at the reality of our city.”

At Provision, every guest will have their glasses filled.