Aaron and Linda

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Never Going Back

Four years ago, Aaron Amundson left food service for good. Overworked and losing out on time with his young family, he had no plans to ever return to a commercial kitchen.

A year ago, Linda Butler was a full-time pastor serving Dysart United Methodist Church. She didn’t anticipate a career change.

Then along came Matthew 25 with an invitation that disrupted their trajectory and set them on a path to creating something new: the Groundswell “pay-it-forward” Café.

“In order for me to walk back into this,” Aaron explained, “it had to have a purpose, a ministry behind it.” Aaron had worked in fast-paced chain restaurants for years, where the main mission was to make money. Matthew 25 was offering something different. “With the pay-it-forward mission, the connection to people and local foods, it was something I couldn’t pass up.” The whole endeavor, he says, has been “a reminder of what I enjoyed about cooking, about spending time with people. I walk out with sense of satisfaction, a sense of purpose, at end of day.”

For Linda, it was a similar draw. “Anything that has to do with food, farm, or people, it just gets me really excited,” she told me as we sat at a table in the newly opened café. “I kind of live and breathe recipes.” When she saw a post on Facebook from Clint Twedt-Ball that Matthew 25 was hoping to create a café that used fresh produce from its urban farm, she became intrigued.

At first, she thought she might continue working as a pastor in the Cedar Rapids area and help develop the idea on the side. But before long she realized that wasn’t going to happen, so she decided to retire after twenty-six years in church ministry. “Now, I can’t imagine doing this and trying to pastor a church at the same time,” she said. The Groundswell Café has become her full-time ministry.

A Different Kind of Startup

Like many startup small business owners, Aaron and Linda have poured themselves into their new endeavor. However, because Groundswell’s café is a project of the nonprofit Matthew 25, instead of going it alone, they have the support and guidance of an established organization.

Aaron has been working for Matthew 25 as the manager of Groundswell’s event space for several years. He has hosted concerts, open mic nights, film screenings, live storytelling performances, and many other types of community and arts events. A musician himself, he has always been passionate about the arts and helping others develop their talents. But professionally, he spent many years learning to cook quickly and managing commercial kitchens.

When the opportunity to create something new in the Groundswell space came along, he saw it as his chance to use more of his skills to build relationships and serve the community. He knew returning to food service would mean more work again, but it’s a challenge that also fuels him.

“I’m busier,” he says, “but I’m also going new places and meeting new people. My time with family is a higher quality, because I’m happy in what I’m doing. I’m also trying to be more purposeful in my time with them. I enjoy work probably more than I ever have. Even when you’re working too many hours, if you enjoy your work, it’s tolerable.”

When I asked Linda and Aaron what made Groundswell special, they listed off a number of factors.

As Chef, Linda says, “I get to cook with some of the best food possible.” Groundswell’s food is sourced first from Matthew 25’s Urban Farm, about a mile away from the café. What they can’t grow there comes from other local producers or organic food suppliers like Garden Oasis Farm, Grimm Family Farm, New Pioneer Coop, Frontier Coop, or Albert’s Organics.

“We have the best customers,” Aaron adds. Because of the café’s pay-it-forward mission, “people walk in here wanting to do something for someone else. It’s almost like they start off right away with a sense of accomplishment.”

How Pay-it-forward Works

The way it works is, when customers pay for their food, they can “tip” by adding an amount to the pay-it-forward fund. The fund covers the cost of meals for patrons who might not be able to afford a fresh, organic meal at your typical cafe. All the guest has to do is hand the cashier one of the readily available pay-it-forward cards, and the meal is free.

But the food and the fund aren’t all that Linda and Aaron like about Groundswell’s café. The two have put a lot of thought into making it sustainable and community-building. All the coffee is Equal Exchange, which means the coffee growers receive a fair price for their product. The café uses cloth napkins, and any to-go containers are 100% compostable. There’s also a large “community table” where guests are invited to sit together and visit.

Finally, the café uses volunteers to help prepare food and interact with guests. This helps reduce costs and provides an opportunity for people who want to give some of their time to support Matthew 25’s mission of strengthening neighborhoods. “We’ve gotten some of the best volunteers every day,” Linda says.

A Different Kind of Development

None of this would have been possible without the generosity of donors who funded the creation of Groundswell in the first place. It’s truly been a community effort, supported by people who believe it’s important to invest in inclusive neighborhood development.

Aaron and Linda have changed their life paths to help create something new. They both admit they weren’t sure if they could pull it off, and they’ve still got a lot to learn. When I asked them what they’re looking forward to next, Linda, the chef who “lives and breathes recipes,” said, “I’m looking forward to creating the winter menu.”

For his part, Aaron anticipates “having more employees, seeing the place grow, seeing all the new faces and continuing to build a sense of community.”

The café’s been open for less than a month at the time of this writing. It’s too early to tell exactly how Linda and Aaron’s vision will shape up in the long run, but it seems to be off to a great start.

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Courtney Ball. Photos by Olivia Harding.