The fact that Cameron McCown is a Millennial and a Christian may explain, for some, why he opened a restaurant dependent on donations and volunteerism from its customers to serve other customers.
Millennials are, after all, said to be especially passionate about hands-on charity and ministry work.
But McCown, 32, said the inspiration behind the Bread of Life Deli in Meridian, Idaho, comes from a deeper insight that all people — regardless of economic status, age, race, faith or political beliefs — yearn for “common connections” through community.
And a powerful way to meet that need, the 2010 Baylor University graduate said, comes from breaking bread together.
“I have always believed everyone deserves access to healthy food,” said McCown. “I have always believed this, but I didn’t know how to turn that belief into action.”
The move from belief into action occurred when McCown combined a social entrepreneurialism approach to “dining with dignity.” The Bread of Life Deli opened in May 2015 in the community located a 15-minute drive from Boise.
Love and support from the community
The business’ menu looks much like that of any other deli. French dip, Reuben, smoked turkey, ham and cheese and pastrami are among the offerings.
What the menu doesn’t offer are prices for those and any other items.
“There are no prices on the menu — no numbers on the menu at all,” McCown said. “We are a restaurant which operates by donations only — anybody can eat their fill from our menu.”
While customers are not required to do so, they may contribute what they can or want to give, McCown said. Signs in the dining room suggest customers donate their time, talents or resources.
About 72 percent of diners make financial contributions, he said. Some of them give more than what they would pay for the same meals at local restaurants, others give less.
Many of the 30 percent who don’t or can’t give money, end up volunteering to help the deli’s three part-time employees, McCown said.
Even some of those who make generous financial contributions volunteer — about 10 to 15 people each week, he said.
The deli receives no government, nonprofit or other outside funding.
But it has enjoyed wide ranging media coverage. People magazine published an online article about the deli and a number of television stations and major U.S. newspapers have featured the deli.
“We just have a community around us who loves and supports us.”
‘Dine with dignity’
The importance of community at Bread of Life Deli is displayed for all to see.
A chalkboard sign in the cash register-less deli informs patrons that everyone should have access to healthy food, and that the deli exists to stop hunger, grow relationships and build a healthy community.
McCown said the same message is evident just by looking around the deli during a busy lunch hour. Attorneys, doctors, families, carpenters, plumbers, accountants and homeless people are often eating together — or working side-by-side as volunteers.
“We sit together and know each other and, for 20 minutes anyway, they know they are worth the quality of food we are able to give them.”
The atmosphere generated by that kind of fellowship offers all guests — and especially those who live in poverty or are homeless — a place to eat where they are treated as equals.
“We want to give everyone the opportunity to dine with dignity,” McCown said.
That happens when patrons from the “food-secure demographic” mingle with those beset by poverty, whether they work or not, McCown said.
“It affects you emotionally and physically when you don’t eat well,” he said.
For his part, McCown said he is inspired by his belief in God as loving and non-coercive and who does not withhold his love in return for anything.
“At the end of the day I want to figure out how to love my neighbor.”
And that means not taking a faith-based approach.
“We feed people and that’s it.”