If you’re not familiar with the small, community restaurant tucked along Farnam Street between 16th and 17th Streets downtown, you need to be. The concept is simple: provide healthy food for anyone who walks in the door, and you can either make a monetary donation in any amount, or you can volunteer in the restaurant. Either way, you’re guaranteed a warm, delicious meal and a place to connect with others in the community.
Owners Matt and Simone Weber, both musicians who first met at a music camp in high school, have always been mission minded. After attending the University of Nebraska Lincoln, they moved to New York City where Matt studied at the Natural Gourmet Culinary Institute and interned at the James Beard House. Knowing that food was healing, he wanted to cook with more purpose rather than just food for entertainment.
Simultaneously, Simone was pursuing her passion for song writing and singing, and wanted to use her talents to help those in need. After deciding to move back to Nebraska to be closer to family. She became the Director of Music at First Lutheran Church in downtown Omaha. When a parishioner named Grace learned that Simone wanted to professionally record her music, Grace offered to finance the project. “After that we started thinking about additional projects and began to dream bigger,” Simone said. “We wanted to combine music and food to help people in need.”
The couple decided they needed to start their own non-profit, and once again Grace offered to help them financially. In 2008, they offered 200 meals per week to families out of the church kitchen. “It was a way to give families more time around a table while eating healthy food,” Matt said. A year and a half later, Matt visited a restaurant in Denver called SAME Café (So All May Eat). He liked the idea of a community restaurant and decided to create the concept in Omaha.
When the Webers found the space at 16th and Farnam, they knew it was the right location. “It’s a crossroads for people of all walk of life,” Matt explained. Within walking distance of the restaurant there’s a homeless shelter, bus stop, the courthouse, and professional office buildings. They felt the blend of people was important. “We believe healthy giving is based on relationships, and there’s no better way to do that than to have a meal with someone,” Simone said.
Table Grace is a way to give a “hand up” rather than a “hand out,” such as simply giving someone money on the street. Seventy percent of those served at Table Grace are either low or no income. Ten to 20% of those volunteer their time in the restaurant, while the remaining are able to pay a few coins up to $3.00 for a meal. Thirty percent of customers pay generously when they come in. Because there is such a gap, Table Grace has to diversify where they receive their income. Simone released a CD of songs to tell their story and performs them locally. She’s also working on putting together a musical to perform at local theaters. In addition to cooking at the restaurant, Matt provides catering, and next spring he’s launching the Table Grace food truck.
Although the menu is small—pizza, salad, and soup is the core of it—all food is made fresh, with 90% of ingredients being donated from organizations such as Saving Grace. Every day there is a new gourmet pizza and soup, and on Saturdays Matt makes brunch that may include croissant waffles, breakfast enchiladas, or home made cinnamon rolls. He also provides gluten-free and vegan options. The catering menu is more extensive for weddings, conferences, and corporate meals.
The Webers want Table Grace to serve as a vehicle for change, which can only be accomplished if more people decide to make a difference by enjoying a meal at the restaurant for a donation. “The people who are trying to get out of poverty value a place like Table Grace so they can get to the next step in their life,” Simone said. “Sometimes problems seem too large to make a difference, but simply by having a meal here you can be a positive impact on someone who needs it right in our community.”