By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Chef Leah Smutko has just returned from a drive through rural corners of the Gallatin Valley outside Bozeman. She’s brought back a load of locally grown produce along with lamb and beef raised on Montana sweetgrass. On this night, her crew is serving up lasagna in three styles—Bolognese, elk and vegetarian—along with harvest squash, garden salad, herb-flavored tom yum gai soup and blueberry or peach crisp for dessert.
Gourmet meals cooked from scratch, freshly made and ready for pickup. These are not mouthwatering dishes prepared for an upscale restaurant but made with care for patrons of the Bozeman eatery Fork and Spoon.
The mission of this nonprofit, pay-what-you-can restaurant goes beyond simply delivering savory sustenance. It also serves up healthy helpings of dignity to families and others coping with severe food challenges.
As Smutko, who also serves as front-of-the-house manager, said recently, Fork and Spoon, somewhat inconspicuously located along busy North Seventh Avenue, is intended to be a bright spot where diners from all walks of life gather.
But today, right now and for as far into the future as anyone can see, Fork and Spoon desperately needs our help. No matter where you are reading these words, you might also think of Fork and Spoon’s plight as a microcosm of the rising wave of hunger issues reaching into every corner of America.
Cozy and welcoming, Fork and Spoon is a place where, no matter what’s happening in your life that day, you can look forward to feeling appreciated as a human being, as if invited over to a friend’s kitchen for dinner.
The nonprofit restaurant was originally named The Community Café and still stands as Montana’s first—and only—social enterprise restaurant, sharing a kindship with similar eateries that have opened in L.A., New York City and Seattle. It’s one of several innovative community service offerings hatched by the Human Resources Development Council in Bozeman, also a tour de force behind the Big Sky Community Food Bank.
The fact that food insecurity exists here, in booming Bozeman and Big Sky, New West symbols of hipness for the upwardly mobile, comes with no small degree of irony.
Fork and Spoon has served up 12,000 meals since March when the pandemic hit and would have brought in around $28,000 in donations. With its insidious social impacts, COVID-19 forced Fork and Spoon to abruptly shift to take-out only and with that, the contributions of big-hearted people who loved to eat in house—and open their wallets—dried up.
In addition, Fork and Spoon’s small catering operation and the it money earned from renting out its facility for social events got mothballed too. While demand for meals has only increased, revenue has dropped by more than 80 percent.
“Pay what you can” means just that within the context of “paying it forward.” Diners contribute whatever their budget allows, though the premise is that anyone capable of frequenting a regular restaurant is willing to handle full fair plus tip. Many generously pay more to cover the tab for another.
A donation of $14 covers the cost of a take-out or in-house meal for a Fork and Spoon patron and it helps make this novel farm-to-kitchen-and-table social enterprise possible. For those who want to have impact that truly ripples, a donation of $500 pays for 90 people to enjoy supper on any given night.
Behind the sanguine shine of Bozeman’s growing national reputation as a livable community is a reality that doesn’t appear in tourism brochures. A lot of people are struggling to make ends meet and having to scrimp when it comes basic necessities—food, clothes, medical care and yes, even shelter, because of skyrocketing real estate values and high rents.
“You might have just read that the median local home price in Bozeman is around $600,000 and that the median family income is $60,000 which seems like a lot, but you can’t own a home on that and there are plenty of people who make far less,” says Darcy Saffer, HRDC’s family support coordinator.
What’s cool about this oasis is that prior to COVID-19 it was a popular spot where people with means liked to go and interact with no pretension, knowing that when they paid full price (and often a few times above full price) they were anonymously buying dinner for another community member.
Chef Smutko believes that communities worth living in are those that make personal dignity for all a priority.
“No one should feel stigmatized about being hungry and no one in Bozeman has any less of a right to enjoy a solid, flavorful meal like you would get in a good restaurant,” she notes while standing over a stack of fresh vegetables about to get sliced and sauteed for the evening meal. “We are committed to making dinner a happy time in peoples’ lives.”
Editor’s note: Fork and Spoon currently has only take-out, but people are welcome to donate cash at their discretion. Visit forkandspoonbozeman.org for the easiest way to contribute. Volunteering will re-commence in November.
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by Thomas D. Mangelsen, about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.