On the shores of Lake Erie, the town of Port Clinton, Ohio, is idyllic in many ways – a tourist destination with lovely lakefront homes and upscale condos, big boats and lots of fun attractions. But the homes and condos belie the reality that many of the community’s less fortunate face every day.
Bistro 163, just a stone’s throw from the lake, is a new concept in addressing hunger in the community. The pay-it-forward restaurant is open for lunch daily, serving anyone, regardless of ability to pay. Patrons are encouraged to pay more than the total of their bill to help others enjoy a meal. Those unable to pay are asked to give their time in service as payment.
Bistro 163 nurtures more than the body. Mind and soul are equally important, said Stacy (Tenney) Maple, ’94, who came on board as the executive chef and general manager, helping to create it from the ground up. A trained chef, she developed the entire menu for Bistro 163, which utilizes a farm-to-table approach of fresh food, prepared from scratch, using locally sourced artisans and ingredients whenever possible.
She oversees the operation, which includes eight paid staff and about 75 regular volunteers. If there’s a job that needs to be done, there’s a volunteer to step in, whether it’s doing prep work, serving as hostess, waitress, cook or dishwasher. If they have a willing spirit, Maple will find a way for them to give back.
“I didn’t think professionally, this would be my journey,” said Maple, who returned to the area from the South 2-1/2 years ago with husband, Criss, ’92, and their two sons, who all volunteer at Bistro 163. “But I feel very blessed, really, and I believe there was a divine call to this mission.”
Heidelberg Trustee Marsha Bordner thinks so, too. Bordner – who volunteers as a hostess every Monday – explains that Bistro 163 was the culmination of intense dialog in her Firelands Presbyterian Church about what’s more important: putting people in pews or serving the community. The dialog turned toward service.
“If you want a fabulous lunch, that’s what you get here,” Bordner said. “And people like it because they can be charitable.”
The quaint, café-style eatery is definitely doing something right as it strives to fill a void in the community. In its first year, Bistro 163 served 12,000 delicious meals, 30 percent of those at no charge.
Trained at Atlanta’s Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts and the American Culinary Federation, Maple has 25-plus years of experience, most recently as a culinary consultant offering professional services such as recipe creation, menu development, food styling, food writing and cooking demonstrations and classes. Managing Bistro 163 has been the single biggest challenge of her professional career.
According to Bordner, the bistro’s board found the perfect person for the job – a talented chef “with a very gentle heart and spirit.”
“Stacy knows that so many of the people who come in are hungry, yet she does not judge,” Bordner said. “She is not a pushover, either. She’s always firm and fair, and I love her.”
And she’s quick to give a hug, a huge smile and a kind word, understanding how meaningful it is for the clientele who are willing to contribute their volunteer service in exchange for a meal. Bistro 163 has a policy of one meal for one hour of service. The idea of being able earn a meal, instead of taking a handout, really seems to resonate, Maple said.
“There’s such a dynamic group of people who come through our doors. Some have developmental issues and others are just down on their luck,” she added. “They feel loved and wanted here, so they keep coming back.” She noted that Bistro 163 is fortunate to be located in a complex with other non-profits on Port Clinton’s main thoroughfare – State Route 163. Low-income housing units are the bistro’s neighbors.
Maple and the Bistro 163 board have developed two outreach programs that further engage and unite the community. On the second Monday of each month, volunteers arrange the tables family style, and the bistro hosts a community meal, free to all, with no obligations. At least 50 people join in fellowship each time.
She’s particularly proud of the after-school Snack & Study program. Every Wednesday, Bistro 163 volunteers – many of them retired teachers – welcome local school children after school for a full meal and help with homework. Maple’s pride comes in when she realizes that the children feel a sense of security there.
“I asked one little girl what she liked about coming, and she said, ‘I feel safe here.’” Those four words make everything worthwhile.
Bistro 163 has found a creative way to support the Port Clinton community, uniting people from all walks of life, one plate at a time.
Bordner believes the volunteers gain more than they give as they’re reminded of the daily struggles of the less fortunate in their community. “For the hours we’re here, we focus on love and compassion and dignity,” she said. “It really is a bit of a respite from the world we live in where hate, antagonism and cynicism are so pervasive.”
Bistro 163 is hallowed ground, she added, because everyone leaves happier by showing kindness to each other. Retired ‘Berg administrator Dr. Kathy Venema has seen that kindness, first as a customer and now as a volunteer. Venema was introduced to Bistro 163 by Maple last summer when she was conducting a cooking demonstration at Lakeside. Ironically, the two knew each other well when Maple was a student and Venema was the associate vice president of Academic Affairs.
“Since I was never a waitress, it has been a fun challenge to learn the routine,” Venema said. “The best part is getting to meet the customers and the other volunteers, and to think that in some small way, I am helping to address the hunger issues in our area.”
As the patrons and the volunteers will attest, Bistro 163 is about so much more than the food.
“I hope people will come to realize who we are really serving here,” Maple said.