With local ingredients, dedicated volunteers and a community mission, Common Grounds Café has a recipe for success.
It’s a few minutes before 8 a.m. on a Friday in mid-March and the kitchen at Common Grounds Café is bustling. Vera Klauck has just dropped off a half-dozen quiches she made—quiche is today’s special—and server Diane Sullivan is chatting up the dishwashers, volunteers from the local Boys & Girls Club.
Mike Buhler arrives with a stack of cardboard boxes, containing an array of muffins and scones from Montana Plains Bakery—a constant on the menu—while Debbe Wombwell puts the quiches in the oven to warm and makes sure there are enough butter pats to go around.
And everyone working at the all-volunteer restaurant, from the kitchen staff to the servers, is hoping the late-winter cold snap doesn’t scare off customers. On a busy day, Wombwell said, 60 or 70 people might drop by Common Grounds for breakfast. They’re hoping for that kind of day.
But before the first cup of Hill City Coffee is poured or the first hefty slice of Klauck’s quiche is ordered, the volunteers gather for what they call “circling.” There in the hallway by the kitchen, they hold hands and, after a moment of silence, ask for God’s blessings as they serve others.
Serving others is what Common Grounds Café is all about. For the past three and a half years, the cafe, a mission of Church of the Covenant, has been serving breakfast on Friday mornings from 8 to 11 a.m.
In addition to the quiche, popular menu items include gluten-free blueberry pancakes, served on the first Friday of each month, and cherry almond oatmeal, made with steel-cut oats, flaxseed, tart cherries and vanilla almond milk, topped with homemade granola, maple syrup and cream.
Whenever possible, organic and local foods are used, including produce from the Lynchburg Community Market. “Originally, it was all vegetarian, but sometimes meat finds its way onto the menu,” Wombwell said. “Vera made quiche with and without bacon last week and they sold equally well.”
Common Grounds operates out of what many locals might know as the Lodge of the Fisherman. The cozy brick structure, located on 40 acres off Boonsboro Road, has for decades been a meeting place for people of all races, ages and faith traditions.
In the 1960s, for example, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. visited the Lodge while in town to speak at E.C. Glass High School.
Also, Church of the Covenant’s day camp, Camp Kum-Ba-Yah, has been open to children of all races since its founding in the 1950s.
The idea for Common Grounds originated about five years ago, with Kaye Edwards, wife of a former pastor of Church of the Covenant, David Edwards. “[Kaye] wanted to do something to serve children in the community,” Buhler said, adding that she “sounded the call [and] we met, talked, and the idea percolated up to do a cafe.”
Proceeds from Common Grounds—about $30,000 so far—are donated to nonprofits that help local children, including CASA, Kids’ Haven, Beacon of Hope, the Boys & Girls Club and others. The cafe also funds scholarships at Camp Kum-Ba-Yah.
Unlike a normal restaurant, however, Common Grounds runs on donations. On the chalkboard menu, posted next to each of the day’s culinary offerings, is a suggested donation. Amounts range from $1.95 for coffee, including refills, to $6.75 for the daily special.
Servers deliver a ticket at the end of the meal, but diners are asked to give as they feel led. Wombwell said that routinely results in “30 to 50 percent over our suggested donation, which I think is really cool.”
Cash and checks are accepted, but not credit cards. But, if you do come in with an empty wallet, you don’t have to leave with an empty stomach.
“These guys came in, maybe college-age, and they came with a credit card,” volunteer coordinator and server Linda Burnett Bush recalled.
“I said we didn’t take [credit cards] and they didn’t have cash, so I said, ‘Look, don’t worry about it. Come again sometime and give a little extra. No big deal.’ This has happened a number of times.”
As previously stated, Common Grounds is run by volunteers. According to Wombwell, the demographic for these volunteers is “across the board” and includes men and women, moms, retirees, people from partner organizations such as the Boys & Girls Club, and others.
Wombwell said volunteers from the partner organizations have helped out with more than just dishwashing. They also offer good advice, such as how to use social media to get the word out about the cafe.
“They give us all of this valuable information,” Wombwell said. “It’s just been this neat flow.”
A lot of the volunteers are members of Church of the Covenant, but it’s not a requirement, and there are no rules on how often you must help out. “Volunteers can come once a month or whenever they choose,” Wombwell said, adding, “We would love some more volunteer help.”
Several of the volunteers there on that mid-March Friday—among them Cris Pacho, Susie Joiner and Diane Sullivan—have volunteered at Common Grounds since it first opened.
Pacho, a therapist by trade, said she enjoys serving at Common Grounds because it doesn’t feel like work. “It’s a nice community,” she said. “You never know who’s going to be here. It’s easy, fun, relaxed, and so I keep doing it.”
Joiner, an experienced waitress, said she “always liked waitressing because it’s physical. The customers are loyal, and it’s fun-to-do, hands-on work that makes a difference in the community.”
Sullivan, a retired dental assistant, said she enjoys the “camaraderie [and] hanging out with the ladies here, and that the donations go to kids in the community.”
She added that she “started volunteering because this was [Kaye’s] pet, but now I’ve got a family here on Friday mornings.”
Sullivan’s not the only one who’s found a family of sorts at Common Grounds. Bush tells a story about how her neighbor’s life has changed through friends he’s made at the cafe.
“Three years ago, my next door neighbor’s wife passed away,” Bush said. “He was lonely and I told him about the cafe. He came over and sat down, and Mike [Buhler] sat with him. He started coming regularly and became part of a group.
“He said, in a way, it saved him and gave him something to look forward to in life. We’ve had several [people] like that. You can come by yourself, but if you become a regular you will not eat alone.”