Its not every day you wander into a café that has a charitable social mission attached.
A mod yet homespun café down the street from the University of Kansas Hospital, Annas Oven serves up affordable comfort food. Customers order at the counter from a well-edited menu that includes rotisserie chicken, chicken and noodles, a meatloaf dinner and variations on mac and cheese and lasagna, rounded out by a few salads, homey sides and an assortment of brownies, cobbler and cookies.
And everything on the menu is under $12.
Even at these prices, Annas Oven stands out for the quality of its food. But there is also a less obvious charitable mission at work. Annas Oven is part of a new breed of philanthropic restaurant concepts popping up across the United States.
The precise social causes and restaurant structures vary widely, but examples include Homegirl, a Los Angeles restaurant that gives at-risk women food-service jobs serving a Latin-inspired menu; and a gourmet pay-what-you-can restaurant just opened by singer Jon Bon Jovi in New Jersey.
The purpose of Annas Oven is to support the Friends of St. Anne, a nonprofit organization with the goal of helping to fund a girls school (st-annes-girls-school.com) in Kapkemich, Kenya. So far, the groups fundraisers have supplied the school with a library and a science lab, and eventually the friends plan to expand their efforts to include local educational projects.
The café is backed by 10 investors, including Ruth Schukman-Dakotas and her brother, John Schukman. Ruths son, Luke Dakotas, is on staff. the Schukmans are descendants of the cafés namesake, Anna Giebler, a Depression-era farm wife who lived near Hays, Kan., and was legendary among family and friends for her cooking and her generosity.
Anna is really kind of a symbol for the generation of our grandparents and parents who have taught us to share, says Schukman-Dakotas, who learned to cook by her grandmothers side. She was always serving the homeless, hobos and people who came to her back door.
Schukman-Dakotas, a radiation safety officer at the University of Kansas Medical Center, shared her grandmothers recipes with the cooks, while seasoned restaurateur Ling Chang, owner of Genghis Khan and Blue Koi, has guided the investors, a diverse group that includes teachers and a lawyer, through the ups and downs of a start-up restaurant.
Since opening at the end of June, Schukman-Dakotas says, the café has yet to make a profit, but they continue to tweak the concept, most recently adding Saturday breakfast items to the menu. the café also offers a take-out menu for those who want family- and party-sized servings.
Of course, the long-term success of the café will certainly need to reach beyond the warm fuzzies of a worthy cause.
On my first visit, a girlfriend and I sat at a long communal table decoupaged with vintage robots. we were deep in conversation when the hostess slid a beautiful pot pie with flaky brown pastry crust between us. the tasty sauce was studded with chunks of carrots and celery. A fresh, ruffled green salad accompanied the pot pie, an October special that has yet to go off the menu.
less lovely to look at but every bit as satisfying was the beef and Italian sausage meatloaf dinner, which includes two sides, such as chunky mashed potatoes (oddly, gravy is an extra 50 cents) and seasonal vegetables, in this case half rings of roasted acorn squash with the peel on.
I returned on a Saturday afternoon with my 13-year-old daughter, Daniela, a comfort food fan if ever there was one. we also invited her friend, Ashton, and Ashtons father, Eric.
Daniela went for traditional Italian sausage and pork lasagna, an Anna recipe Chang adores but could never quite find a place for in her Asian concepts. Daniela cleaned her plate, and I was surprised at this because she is less enthusiastic about my lasagna at home.
Ashton carbo-loaded, ordering mac and cheese and a side of mashed potatoes. the mac and cheese satisfied both girls, walking the fine line between bland cafeteria-style and overly rich gourmet versions. its white sauce with American cheddar and Colby cheeses coated the noodles but thankfully never separated into an oily puddle.
Eric was duly impressed by the 10-Spice Rotisserie Chicken, a bronzed half of a plump, hormone-free bird that had been marinated 24 hours in wine, peppercorns, ginger and garlic and was served with two hearty sides.
Eric had a hard time finishing the dish, but with counter service I had already ordered a fall variation of bread pudding, his favorite dessert. He deemed the warm pumpkin bread pudding, a daily special, exemplary.
Meanwhile, I enjoyed my chicken and noodles that were paper-thin instead of the doughy planks that seem to define most versions, and Daniela dug into Ashtons untouched mashed potatoes. She said they tasted like the ones I make as in homespun chunky, not a silky smooth version made with a ricer.
I personally think its good when my potatoes have a little oomph in them, she said. Potatoes are not meant to be all paper-white and smooth.
Would Schukman-Dakotas recommend other nonprofits start cafés of their own?
Id say dont do it unless you have someone who is a successful restaurateur to guide you.