Catering to a Community: Potluck Café serves it up in the heart of the Downtown Eastside

Photos by Natasha Kanji

Potluck Café is like a small corner of paradise in the Downtown Eastside. Located on a block of Hastings Street rife with fights and open-air drug dealing, such activities feel a million miles away when you walk inside and see fresh flowers peeping out of glasses on every table and beautiful photographs of the neighbourhood displayed on the walls.

The quality of the food is superb, good enough that it would command much higher prices in other restaurants. The staff who prepare it are mainly DTES residents with barriers to employment such as mental health issues, previous or current addiction issues or physical disabilities. From their small kitchen, they make food for a wide array of people, ranging from corporate executives who use their catering services to DTES residents who rely on the 30,000 free meals served annually.

“Food is life. It’s a common denominator, a way of bringing people together,” says Heather O’Hara, the executive director of Potluck Café and Catering.

O’Hara says the staff puts equal care into preparing a free meal as it would for its catering clients, reflecting its philosophy of quality food over quantity. Because many in the DTES who rely on Potluck’s meal services suffer severe health problems such as HIV and Hepatitis C, they benefit hugely from Potluck’s nutritious, balanced meals, which are made with the recommendations of a nutritionist. O’Hara explains, “People in the community (the cooks) who have dealt with poverty, who had issues with having enough money to buy good food, they really value getting good food for others."

The Potluck business originated from “Dinners for Binners”, a project co-led with United Way. O’Hara says their focus was initially on at-risk youth because that’s where government funding was available. Over time, however, it became clear that there was a far greater need in the community to help older, single white men between the ages 35 and 55.

She recounts that her group made a conscious decision to build up catering as their main “money-maker,” so that Potluck could employ people based on need, not on whether they met certain grant requirements.

“The great thing about running a social enterprise is that we have the freedom to make the right decisions, instead of being bound by funding,” she says. “The café and catering has gone from zero to $1.5 million in eight-and-a-half years. That’s a lot of wages. That’s people being able to pay rent. That’s people being able to buy things that support the local economy.”

With wages starting at $10 and topping off at $25, workers are paid more than many restaurants in Vancouver. The compensation comes with a benefits package, which includes dental care, long-term disability benefits, extended health care and access to a part-time employment trainer who helps them develop the necessary skills to maintain a job.

The personal growth of workers at Potluck is evident. One of the best examples is Helen Hill, 63, who has become a symbol of the café with her gentle manners and the trademark flowers in her hair. Even the toughest-looking customers soften when she calls them “Hun” and smiles at them with her soulful green eyes.

“I love it here,” Helen says in a firm voice. “I call this, and my boss Johnny (executive chef John Perry), the path to happiness.” Hill, who suffers from dyslexia and couldn’t read until age 40, has flourished since surviving the tough first weeks on the job. She now pursues creative writing and has been published in Megaphone via the magazine’s creative writing workshop.

It’s no secret that people like Helen are what keep customers coming back. One young man, Corey, has a one-word answer for becoming a regular at the café. “Staff,” he says, between bites of his Little Truckers breakfast. “They’re good people here. And the food’s great.”

O’Hara exudes pride as she talks about her team. “Potluck has got a super-loyal staff. They’re hardworking, adaptable, entrepreneurial. We’re not afraid of change.”

One notable change that O’Hara and the Potluck crew are currently working on is the Downtown Eastside Kitchen Tables project. Co-led with the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, the project aims to decentralize the distribution of free food in the area. ,”It's very disconnected right now,” she says of the current system, which is mainly based on charity organizations. “It doesn't address community economic development.”

“The idea of this project is to serve better quality food to the folks in need and access food that is local, like utilizing the community gardens,” executive chef John Perry explains. He says that much of the free food in the DTES today is made based on what organizations can afford—donated items such as old vegetables, stale bread, and pasta – and not on peoples' nutritional needs.

O'Hara emphasizes that Potluck is involving DTES residents so that they can take a more active role in determining what they eat and, if possible, learning to procure it for themselves.

“Current food-related organizations are working together in a more holistic way, setting the bar higher for nutritional standards, and creating jobs,” she says.

The project is set to be implemented in 2010 and 2011, and, like Potluck, is aimed to generate employment for DTES residents in the restaurant and catering industry. And that would be nourishment for the whole community.


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