Pay-what-you-can cafe serves more than food amid pandemic

MILWAUKEE — A Milwaukee restaurant with a different business model has been thriving amid the pandemic, while helping to keep people fed.

Tricklebee Cafe, at West North Avenue and North 45th Street, has been serving plant-based food, but you will not find prices on their ever-changing menu.

The cafe offers meals on a pay-what-you-can basis. It does not offer a suggested price, but will share what it costs to make a meal, which is between $7.22-$9.22.

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Executive director Christie Melby-Gibbons said, in the beginning, people doubted it would last, but the model has proved to be sustainable for five years and counting.

“We find every person that comes, give something. Even just this morning a neighbor came by, who has no money at all, but he volunteers in exchange for whatever he takes. So he’ll pick up litter or in the winter he’ll shovel some snow for us. Everyone has some gift that they can give back, maybe their time or service for us, so that just honors the dignity in all people,” said Melby-Gibbons.

The cafe has relied on monetary and food donations, working with whatever comes in.

Yatesha Brown, also known as Tesh, has been the chef since she started as a fill-in in 2019.

“I’m always excited for the challenge, because like I told you before every day is like ‘Chopped’ – the vegan addition. So I never know exactly what it is that I’m gonna walk into,” said Brown.

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When the pandemic hit, Melby-Gibbons got scared they would not make it, but it turned out people needed them more than ever. She said more produce started coming in and more people started donating.

Melby-Gibbons added that the amount of meals Tricklebee Cafe serves has doubled. Sales have also gone up.

“I do think the necessity of pay-what-you-can for families has been a big part of why we’re thriving. People confide in us almost every day, ‘if you weren’t here my family wouldn’t eat today,'” said Melby-Gibbons.

“For me, that’s the best thing ever, because people are able to pay whatever they can afford, and if they can’t afford to pay, they do acts of kindness in service. So they’ll come and just pick up trash in front of the cafe or help plant something in the garden,” said Brown.

Tricklebee Cafe

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Customers said the cafe continues to serve more than just good food.

“Folks know that this is a bit of a treasure and that it does good work. I think it’s all our responsibility to play a role in making sure organizations like this stay open,” said customer Brett Swanson.

“The energy that surrounds this place is just really positive,” said William Johnson, another customer.

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“I’m grateful that we get to be a place, a bright place, for them to come, a place of hope,” said Melby-Gibbons.

The team at Tricklebee Cafe hopes people see that the pay what you can model works and more catch on.

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