How Bean's Cafe was transformed by the pandemic

Published: Jun. 28, 2020 at 7:53 PM AKDT
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For the last three months, Bean’s Cafe’s 3rd Avenue building has seen a lot less traffic. The dining room used to be consistently filled, providing hundreds to thousands of meals every day, and serving as an overnight shelter, often filled to capacity during the Winter.

Now it’s used as a place to store and prepare food for delivery at the mass shelter, run by Bean’s Cafe, at the Sullivan Arena.

“We’re still interested in feeding people, sheltering people, doing what we have been doing since 1979,” said Bean’s Cafe CEO Lisa Sauder. “It’s just that we feel right now that mixing clients in with our food production facility is not advisable at this time.”

The building isn’t empty, though. Teams of cooks are still preparing meals around the clock in the kitchen, but rather than volunteers, most of them are employees.

“It’s caused us to change our entire business model,” Sauder said of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve gone from really heavily volunteer-based, both with client volunteers and community volunteers, to almost no volunteers. It’s really staff-driven now.”

That new business model comes with a price. Operation costs have gone up since Bean’s took on the mass shelter and nearly doubled its paid staffing levels.

“We went from just under 50 employees to over 90 employees for the shelter and food services,” Sauder said. “So it’s been a big growing period for us.”

Another possible change for Bean’s Cafe in the future is the

Sauder said those discussions are still happening, but any final decisions are still a long way off.

“They asked us to get an appraisal on the building, which our board of directors agreed to do, and that’s really kind of where we’re at,” she said.

Whether or not the building is sold, the idea of an engagement center is similar to the community resource hub that operates outside the Sullivan. The hub helps connect individuals experiencing homelessness with services to help get them into more stable housing. Sauder said that so far, around 150 people have been moved out of the shelter thanks to the hub.

“Many have been housed, some have gone to treatment, some have gone home, some have reconnected with relatives, some people have found jobs,” she said.

For now, there’s no set end date for the emergency shelter at the Sullivan, though city officials have said they’d like to return it to it’s normal purpose sooner rather than later, so for now, the 3rd Ave. building will likely remain a staging area.

But Sauder added that she’s hoping for a day when the building can have an entirely different purpose.

“That’s our goal,” she said. “To not be needed would be lovely.”

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