Principle and Practice

Boomtown Cafe's good work is good food.

“EVERYONE DESERVES to eat.” As a concept, it’s simple enough, but talking with executive director Robert Kubiniec and outreach coordinator Kara Martin of Boomtown Cafe, Seattle’s only nonprofit restaurant serving low-income customers, you get a sense of the distance between principle and practiceand the hard work it takes to bridge that gap.

On a recent Friday afternoon, I caught up with Kubiniec and Martin at the cafe. Upon entering, I was struck by the clamor of voices coming from jam-packed booths and tables. A blackboard above the pickup counter listed the specials: beef burrito, tuna melt, and vegetable soup. It was a cool, windy day; these hearty, wholesome dishes sounded just right.

Boomtown began in 1995 as the brainchild of a few area restaurant workers, including Kubiniec, who was also volunteering regularly at shelters. “One thing we realized was that the service we were providing to paying customers was not very gratifying to us,” he told me between bites of burrito. “We were ashamed of the food we were presenting poor people, so we thought about setting up a restaurant for poor people. When you pay for a meal, you can comment. You can say, ‘Hey, this isn’t right!’ But if you’re getting it slopped on a tray at a shelter for free . . . “

After an early partnership with WHEEL (a homeless women’s group), Boomtown began serving meals out of the Aloha Inn, Temple Beth-El, and other venues. The project became a full-fledged restaurant in 1999. As Martin explained to me, it works on a credit system. “Customers barter for their meals,” she said. “They work in the cafe or do dishes. Fifteen minutes equals a meal.” For those who can afford it, breakfast at Boomtown costs $1.25; lunch is $1.75. Kubiniec reports that around 60 percent of Boomtown customers barter instead of paying cash. The restaurant provides some job training; in addition, Boomtown has a mutual-referral arrangement with FareStart, a program that prepares the disenfranchised for food-service work.

The organization’s Fall Squash Balla fund-raising dinner to be held Fri., Oct. 24, at the Arctic Building’s glamorous Dome Roomwill feature culinary contributions from top chefs like Johnathan Sundstrom. When asked what will make this year’s Squash Ball better than the last, Kubiniec laughed. “It’s going to be less stressful,” he said. “We learned a lot from last year. We had more people than we expected last year, so we’ll have more food this year.”

As for Boomtown’s future? “We want to move to a larger space,” Kubiniec said. “We’ve outgrown this space, and we want to bring our line inside.” Seems reasonable enough; after all, bringing people in from the cold is what Boomtown has always been about.