Café 361 is a church-sponsored nonprofit founded in 2013, and located in the First Congregational United Church of Christ in the Wellington Heights area of Cedar Rapids.
The café focuses on instilling both life and leadership skills in underprivileged young women. Once a month, a group of young girls and women between the ages of 14 and 24 researches, cooks and serves between 50 to 100 community members. The monthly meals come with a suggested donation of $5 or $10, and diners must RSVP in advance.
“Our program teaches them things like exposure to life skills, team building and communication,” said director Cindy Nicholson.
Altruism isn’t the only plus for Café 361 patrons. The future leaders behind the scenes are serving up dishes that transcend their amateur status.
“We have people that come to every meal because they love the program and the food. The guests are very dedicated, and we get new ones all the time, too. They love the program and group dedication. The girls pick the meal themes and we give them the recipes and guidance to make them happen.”
To brainstorm meal ideas, the girls divide up into teams, and many of them end up cooking and trying things they’ve never had before. For example, a full dinner with authentic African dishes was inspired by some of the cooks from Tanzania, and will be an upcoming feature at the cafe. A Greek evening inspired by Mamma Mia! is also planned. Café 361 has hosted a Hamilton-themed dinner, and a Breakfast at Tiffany’s meal delighted diners with courses of cheesy sausage and egg bake, baked hashbrown cups, parfaits, fruit compote and more while guests listened to a live piano player.
The cost of preparing these unique meals is covered by diners’ donations, but the money does more than just cover the financial food costs, as Nicholson explained.
“Our girls do much more than cook for Café 361. We do service projects at the Saint Luke’s Ronald McDonald House here in Cedar Rapids. We have also helped with meals for the homeless in Omaha and Dubuque along with cooking for the ministry here at First Congregational Church, including the homebound and ill.”
In addition to the service projects and themed dinners, the Café 361 cooks also participate in the Girls With Ideas program, a curriculum that focuses on building confidence, leadership skills and life goals in girls aged 9-13.
Café 361 does more than promote personal growth in their young workers, Nicholson said; they help the women translate their experiences into continuing education and future career opportunities.
“We work on resume building from the skills they build here,” she said. “We visit culinary schools at Kirkwood and DMACC [Des Moines Area Community College] but we also do other college visits with the girls as well. And we’ve even had a state champion cook at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines!”
The classic recipes, hearty meals, fun themes and quality service found at Café 361 are the savory products of the more important work behind the scenes: nurturing talent, mastering skills and building confidence in its hardworking cooks. The young women in the kitchen have the potential to make a true and lasting impact on the community.
For more information on how to get involved with Café 361, visit their website at www.cafe361.org.