By Erin Coleman
How a family’s year in Uganda inspired a non-traditional Littleton restaurant
GraceFull Community Café, in Littleton, Colorado, is not a traditional restaurant. Rather, it is the manifestation of Heather and Troy Greenwood’s efforts to meet the basic needs of marginalized community members and create connections through food.
The GraceFull Foundation, which constitutes the non-profit side of the business, will cover the partial or full cost of any meal, thereby allowing guests to pay only what they can afford. The café provides an average of 50 of these “Grace in Action” meals per day, accounting for about half of the total meals it serves.
“I can’t fix some really hard challenges in your life, but I can make sure that you’re nourished to be able to face those larger challenges,” says Greenwood.
“One difference [between us and] the other local community cafés is that we do not require any volunteering in exchange for your meal,” Greenwood explains. “We get to have the ‘Are you enabling?’ conversation a lot. Our heart is that we don’t want you to have to do anything in order to earn the opportunity to enjoy a meal.”
Heather grew up on a farm in southeast Nebraska. But she didn’t realize the metaphorical seeds her childhood experiences planted until, in 2012, she and her husband Troy quit their former jobs and moved their family to Uganda for a year of service.
“When you live in a small, rural community, community is foundational,” says Greenwood. “I grew up around all my cousins and my grandparents, and we were just always gathering. And there was always food involved. Those two just go together for me – family and food. And, I didn’t realize the gift that those roots were. But, my dad’s saying was always, ‘Roots and wings.’ You know, I want you to remember where you came from, but I want you to experience whatever you’re passionate about.”
GraceFull customers greet Heather with personal life updates as they enter the café, showing she is just as passionate about community as she is about food.
“For the first three months [in Uganda] all we did was build relationships. We weren’t there to, like, solve anything. Some of my favorite memories of that year involved cooking with the women. October comes around, and I was like, I cannot not bake with pumpkin,” says Greenwood. “So, we figured out how to make a charcoal oven, and I could share that skill with the women, while they could teach me how to make their cultural dishes. That’s when it really hit home – that power of sharing a meal with someone, to share stories. It breaks down all barriers.”
The GraceFull Foundation has established support through donations from customers who elect to pay more than the value of their meal, and through community breakfasts the first Saturday of every month to attract potential sponsors. This June, GraceFull will launch a new initiative called “Fund a Friday,” for smaller individual groups or companies to bring in a team of volunteers and cover the Grace in Action meal costs for the day.
Heather says “[The core value] ‘Show you the beauty of simplicity’ came directly from our time in Uganda. With access to so much in our society, you know, it can be overwhelming. We’re just trying to simplify things to be able to focus on people and relationships.”
Finding a 1912 home for the location of their café felt serendipitous to Heather for the sort of welcoming environment she wanted to create.
“We did a monthly community brunch for about four years and that’s, I think, when I really transitioned from being the person behind the table serving someone a meal to really having a heart to want to sit down at the table with you and share stories and build relationships.” Her eyes fill with tears as she says, “It’s a privilege. But, you see really hard things, and you have to have conversations where you have no solutions.”
Chad W., who asked to have his name shortened to protect information about previous employment, has experienced GraceFull Café’s community-building philosophy first-hand. “I fell in love with how I was treated with respect and dignity here,” he says. “I came back again, just to make sure it wasn’t a coincidence, and I got the same treatment.” He is now working as an intern at GraceFull.
The Greenwoods, along with The GraceFull Foundation’s board of directors, began the internship program as a way of meeting operational needs while simultaneously providing a transitional opportunity for community members to get back into the workforce in a safe environment.
“It’s invitation only to our Grace in Action guests that we’ve developed a relationship with,” Heather explains. “It’s a regular interview; they fill out the same application as the rest of my team members. I interview them, then really try to discern who is in a place to take that next step. It’s kind of this mesh between my for-profit and non-profit, because it’s the work that the non-profit’s doing that [provides] my candidates.”
Chad says his ambition is to be a Warrior Servant. He feels as though he fulfilled the “warrior” side during his former career as a SWAT officer. Now, he wants to commit to the servant side. Chad has PTSD. “There is no cure, but it can be treated symptomatically. It’s good treatment to serve others this way,” he says.
Chad elaborates that his role can be summed up as “G.S.D. – Get Stuff Done.” He says he feels that “education should never end,” and through his willingness to be versatile, he has learned a great deal about “kitchen safety, food service, and even interpersonal relationships.”
Chef Paul Willis likewise feels as though he has found a home at GraceFull. “It’s my home away from home. Rarely does it ever feel like work,” Willis says. “Everybody here has become like family. My favorite part [of the job] is getting to see the volunteers every day. There’s a variety, but they’re all really devoted. I also like getting to know the Grace in Action guests. I see displays of love and devotion from them too.”
For those who may be considering a visit to GraceFull, Willis’ favorite item on the menu is the Friday Quiche, because he says it is the one menu item that allows him to be the most creative and inventive.
“Our formal tag line is Gather. Eat. Give., but I often say our informal tag line is ‘We love people one meal at a time,’” says Heather. “We can’t live each other’s stories out, but we can be part of each other’s stories; and our heart is for this to be a space where everyone always feels welcomed, loved, and known. Whether you’re paying twice the cost of your meal, or you’re in a season where you can’t pay anything, we hope that your experience is equal here.” ■