Twice-weekly eatery in Middleborough welcomes patrons, charges what they can pay

All Are Welcome Community Kitchen and Bakery founder Karen Cook at Church of Our Saviour in Middleborough, where the organization offers two meals a week.
All Are Welcome Community Kitchen and Bakery founder Karen Cook at Church of Our Saviour in Middleborough, where the organization offers two meals a week.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff

MIDDLEBOROUGH — The tables fill quickly in the Church of Our Saviour parish hall as stomachs rumble in anticipation of a pungent, spiced pumpkin bisque simmering on the stove.

It’s a regular Thursday lunch at All Are Welcome Community Kitchen and Bakery, which operates two days a week in the donated space in the town’s Episcopal church, and the day’s menu — an old-fashioned meatloaf sandwich, plus other homemade entrees and the soup — has drawn a range of hungry fans.

What makes this a remarkable scene is that those who break bread here can slide whatever they feel the meal is worth into the sealed donation box at the door. And if they can’t afford to pay this time, they can pay or volunteer at a future meal, or just take the blessing in stride.

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On Thursday, this unusual twice-weekly restaurant in the open meeting space at 60 Union St., which also hosts the occasional church supper, will hold a family-style Thanksgiving dinner at 1 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $15, but the usual pay-as-you-can policy applies.

No matter their circumstances, patrons have been flocking to the place. On this day, they include a businessman who owns the furniture store around the corner, a minister at one of several local churches, community volunteers, a family that has come in off the street, and several people who are a bit down on their luck.

“Hunger relief is our main goal,’’ said Karen Cook, of Middleborough, the executive manager of the kitchen and its founder and chef. “Just because you are hungry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be treated decently.”

Everything is equalized in the guest check, which contains no prices nor totals due. Cook said that’s aimed at creating community, one meal at a time. She describes herself as a church lady who always wanted a mission, and she said she found one with All Are Welcome.

“Once the economy tanked, and I saw the increased need at my local food pantry, I got together with a friend and asked, ‘What can we do?’ ” she said.

Similar nonprofit community kitchens are springing up around the country. Rocker Jon Bon Jovi runs an operation called the Soul Kitchen in Redbank, N.J., and Panera Cares, a charitable arm of the Panera Bread Co., has community kitchens in a number of states.

Cook said at first she considered a food truck, but decided weather would be a problem to her mission. Then Church of Our Saviour donated the space, an offer hard to refuse. Road races and fund-raisers have provided the start-up cash.

She said her philosophy is to offer a dignified and pleasant dining experience in an uplifting environment, without judgment, whether or not the diners can pay. By encouraging those able to support themselves to assist in the support of others, All Are Welcome seeks to reduce what she calls “food insecurity.”

The kitchen, which opened in March, is entirely volunteer-driven and has no operating budget plan, although there are some prospective numbers, Cook said. Donations from one meal fund the next, along with proceeds from various fund-raisers.

“We have never failed to meet the ‘this week pays for next week’ goal,’’ Cook said. “There is no paid staff here, not even me. My goal is just to put a decent, healthy meal on the table.”

Judy Drapeau and Ethel Varnum are close friends who meet often at All Are Welcome for lunch. The two also belong to Central Congregational Church, just a block or two away, and like the chance to catch up over a nice meal.

As they packed up their dessert to go, a white chocolate mousse, Drapeau said she is grateful for the kitchen’s fresh, homemade food.

“It’s like a five-star restaurant,’’ she said, nodding toward her empty plate. “If you have $5, that’s great. If you have $1, that’s great. Or you can volunteer if you don’t have anything.”

The company of Varnum and other regulars who patronize Cook’s kitchen, she said, has lessened her grief after recently losing her husband.

“It’s like family,’’ she said. “You do get to meet other people here. And we have made a lot of friends. It helps.”

Lizzie Howes, a volunteer who attends Middleborough High School, took a quick break to sit down and eat lunch herself before getting back to the kitchen to serve dessert and wash dishes.

“I like it here because I just like talking to people,’’ said Howes, who says she also appreciates Cook’s efforts for others.

“She’s helping people, and that’s nice,” she said.

About half a dozen kitchen volunteers help Cook get the lunch out. On this day, they include Dale Horton, a nurse from Lakeville currently on a sabbatical. Horton said serving food and handling kitchen chores at All Are Welcome is a worthwhile use of her free time.

“I needed to do something, and I really enjoy coming here,’’ she said.

A 5.5K run/walk fund-raiser to help with the cost of buying food for the meals will be held on Jan. 20. The event, which includes a chowder and bread lunch, begins at 1 p.m. at North Congregational Church, 38 Plymouth St., Middleborough. The cost is $25 and includes lunch, or $10 for lunch only. For more information, or a printable registration form, go to www.allarewelcome.us  and click on the lunch bag.

To see whether there is still room at the Thanksgiving meal, call 508-443-0243.