Hands On Hartford (HOH) has provided free meals for Hartford neighbors struggling to get by for more than 40 years. In addition, pre-COVID, HOH ran the Café at Fifty-Five, a restaurant open to the public with proceeds that supported Hands On Hartford’s basic needs human services. HOH’s long time dream and vision has been to somehow combine our meal program with our café. Our vision is all about connecting communities – bringing economically diverse folks together around food (the great connector!), offering the same high-quality, delicious and healthy meals, and the same excellent and welcoming service, to those who can pay and those who cannot. Thus, Gather55 was born!
What’s the model?
Gather55 opens at 9:00 am Monday through Thursday with complimentary coffee, water and fruit available, along with an a-la-carte menu with items like pastries, coffee drinks and smoothies for sale. Full meals are offered between 10:00am and 2:00pm with various breakfast and lunch options. Customers may participate by paying the full price of their meal or a minimum price of $2.00, or participate by volunteering their time with Hands On Hartford if they are not able to pay that day. Services staff at Hands On Hartford and partnering agencies will have “on the house” meal vouchers to help support those who are not able to pay or volunteers.
Dinner service will open in October with a different model that still offers paying and non-paying diners the same welcoming restaurant experience. Dinner will be by reservation only, with a prix fixe menu created by monthly rotating guest chefs. 20-25% of those reservations will be reserved for folks unable to pay the full price.
Some Hartford Info:
Hartford is a small city, with a population a bit under 125,000 down from 177,000 at its peak in 1950. The city’s population decline correlates to the growth of the suburbs that surround Hartford. Over time, Hartford (once a prosperous manufacturing hub) has become poorer and more isolated while the suburbs have thrived. Hartford has a current poverty rate of 28.1%, with a median household income of $36,278. In contrast, Hartford County has a poverty rate of 10.8% and a median household income of $75,381. So we see significant differences in folks’ economic situations in our area, which is our invitation to bridge gaps.
- Staff – From our Head Chef, Chef and Food Service Coordinator, Cooks and Café Associates, our staff are committed to great service and caring for our community.
- Volunteers – our volunteers assist with food preparation, greeting diners, and serving meals. They love the connections they make with folks – whether they are dining, or working as a team to cook up delicious food.
- Diners and donors – Gather55 works because folks enjoying meals pay some or all or even more of the suggested prices for meals. It also works because of the amazing support (both financial and in-kind) provided by individuals, businesses, faith groups, and foundations to help ensure that high quality meals and service continue to be available to all, regardless of their ability to pay. And the whole mission of Gather55 works because folks from all walks of life join us, love our food, are committed to our mission, and connect with each other.
- Advisors – we have had the benefit of amazing pro bono advice of many professionals, from the amazing Tyler Anderson who has shared his commitment to our mission and his restaurant expertise in getting the Gather55 operation going, to board members who have specialized experience in finance, marketing, publicity, and more. We are also greatly appreciative of the learnings from by other community cafés around the country including A Place at the Table in Raleigh, NC, Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen in New Jersey and the SAME cafe in Denver, CO.