Growing up, Ragina Saunders says her grandmother cooked with a supernatural pot.
"At my grandma's house, everyone could come. She had this pot that just kept stirring and she kept on getting scoops out, no matter how many people came with their kids, she kept on scooping out food, making up plates. I saw that growing up and the little things we take for granted and I saw how this world was going and how we need to keep this spirit alive. We're Charleston, we're hospitality. I still believe we're the Holy City."
Saunders opened pay-what-you-can Destiny Community Café in her family's Scott Grand Reception and Corporate Center building on Dorchester Road in Spring 2015. She had seen the need in her community, and heard about the nonprofit One World Everybody Eats, a program that helps food vendors open pay-what-you-can eateries. Destiny was the first cafe under this nonprofit in the state of South Carolina (Dellz on the Macon has since joined the roster). Since its inception, word has spread and Saunders is serving buffet-style lunch Mon.-Fri. to at least 50 people a day, carrying on the tradition of that supernatural giving pot. But serving healthy meals to customers who sometimes can only donate a few dollars, or their time, is not easy to sustain. And keeping up with the ever-growing city means costs are only rising.
"We've been growing, and the shopping center we're in, new people have been moving in, which has caused us to need to come up to that standard/scale. The first thing is the signage," says Saunders. The property's landlord let all the businesses know that they needed new large block signage (currently the cafe has a small, painted sign propped up out front) to match the bigger stores like Sav-A-Lot and Planet Fitness. Saunders says even though it will be pricey for their nonprofit, she's not complaining.
"It makes sense, and actually will make us much more visible. We're not complaining, we just need funding." Saunders posted on social media about the need for the new sign, which will cost the cafe upwards of $2,500. "I let customers know what we're up against. We've got a couple of companies that have given us other offers than what we were looking at. We're hoping that those meet approval, we need help. Everything is growing around us and the community wants us to stay."
The community Saunders serves is comprised of Charleston denizens who are disabled, don't have means of transportation, seniors, and people who can't afford organic healthy food, but more than that, can't afford to eat cheap, fried fast food every day. "We try to put out as much healthy food as possible. We have one guy who comes in and tells us his blood sugar level every day," laughs Saunders. "He's happy because we're cooking things he can eat on his diet restrictions. The food [we serve] is doing more than filling their bellies, it's healing."
The cafe's long list of needs includes a walk-in freezer (also close to $2,000) which they'll use to keep the fresh produce they receive from local growers from going bad. In addition to vegetable donations and non-perishable items, Saunders says a lot of the food they serve is purchased out of her own pocket. And renting out the banquet hall space on the weekends helps keep the lights on.
"Some days I say 'OK lord, I don't know how I'm going to feed 50 people with this little bit of money in my hands' and a volunteer will come and say 'let's make this.' Our motto is 'come to Destiny: pay what you can, we cook what we can.'"
Because they can only store and prep so much food at a time, the cafe doesn't have a set menu. But they do have an ambitious up-and-coming caterer and event planner working his magic in the kitchen. Terrence Freeman, owner of Charleston's Elite Event Planning, was quick to bring me slices of his homemade banana bread with bourbon caramelized bananas the moment I arrived. This is not the kind of fare you may expect at a pay-what-you-can cafe, but Saunders says there are lots of bright young people contributing their talent to the cause. "It's a good launching point, with the hands-on experience they'll get ... Terrence comes here early in the morning, he's so excited. He likes to prep and organize and manage."
Freeman and other young volunteers are welcome faces for the seniors who, Saunders says, "come a lot." "They love interacting with young people, and a lot of the younger volunteers will teach the older people how to use their cellphones." Saunders points out one of her volunteers, Janie Jones, who shyly smiles when Saunders mentions her newly learned phone finesse. Saunders says that Jones — who is almost 90 — is about as close to a real life saint as you can get. "She will go find people at the bus stop, if they're hungry, need clothes or shelter, she'll pick people up and bring them here for lunch. On Sundays when we aren't busy she will come in and we'll do an assembly line and she'll take 30-40 dinners to homeless people."
It's people like Jones, and kind-hearted, down-on-their-luck strangers, who keep Saunders going, even as the pot looks like it may run dry. "A guy came in today, he was out of breath, like he'd been running to get here. We had 30 minutes before we closed, he said 'I heard about this place and they said I could volunteer and I'm here to volunteer because I don't have any money.' Someone was bringing in some bags and he got up to assist them immediately, it was nice he recognized right then that he could step in and help," says Saunders. "People still surprise me, even after three years. We're all so jaded, all this horrible stuff happening [in the world] 'how can people do this?' and then I'll come in here and you think gosh there really are good people. It gives me hope for the community."
Help Destiny Community Cafe get their sign up by September by donating at GoFundMe.com/DestinyCafe. The cafe is happy to accept paper towels, toilet paper, sanitizer, and non-perishable items, as well as volunteers who can donate their time during the week.