Volunteer Lana Dyreson hands out food to customers at the the Barneveld Community Café in Barneveld. The owners of the restaurant eliminated prices on the menu so those struggling with unemployment and unable to make ends meet can still get a warm meal. (Photo © Andy Manis)
Volunteer Lana Dyreson hands out food to customers at the the Barneveld Community Café in Barneveld. The owners of the restaurant eliminated prices on the menu so those struggling with unemployment and unable to make ends meet can still get a warm meal. (Photo © Andy Manis)

Owners switched business model to help address food insecurity, earn enough to stay open during COVID-19 pandemic.

At the Barneveld Community Café, a nothing burger is more than just a figure of speech. It’s a menu item. And while not technically its name, the nothing burger is joined on the menu by a nothing salad, some nothing pancakes and maybe a slice of nothing pie.

That’s because at the café on the main drag of this Iowa County town of 1,291 people, that’s the cost of every item on the menu – nothing. 

As restaurants and other industries reconsider their business models due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cliff and Yvonne Hooks didn’t just reconsider theirs, they chucked it out the drive-thru window. They traded their conventional café for a nonprofit model that has just one price on its menu: $0. People pay what they can or pay more if they’d like. 

“You don’t need to show ID. You don’t need to show your last paycheck. You don’t need to do anything,” said Yvonne Hooks. “Everybody is on a level playing field. If you have some money and want to pay and if you have something extra that’s fine, we never ask for donations.”

The menu at Barneveld Community Cafe. (Photo © Andy Manis)

It’s all part of a mission to address food insecurity, Yvonne Hooks said. In the past, the Hooks tried to give people who needed it discounts but no one accepted. 

“People are proud and there is such a stigma to asking for help,” she said. “So I thought, ‘Let’s just give everyone the same bill. You pay nothing, and you pay nothing.’ And that just takes away the stigma.”

Enough people give that the café is humming along with its at-will payment system. A good day for the café is 70 to 100 customers, some of whom tuck a $20 bill or two in between a couple singles and drive away with their food.  Sometimes, the generosity puts the pressure on the cook. 

“The other day, first thing in the morning, a man had a cup of coffee, biscuits and gravy and handed me a $50 bill,” Cliff said. “Those might be good biscuits and gravy, but $50?”

And there are those who understand that they can pay what they can afford. Earlier in the spring, as the café was winding down for the day, Cliff Hooks saw the top of two little heads outside the drive-thru window.

“One of the little girls said, ‘Mr. Cliff, can we get supper for our mom and dad?’’’ he says. 

There was just enough food left for the Hooks’ supper that evening but they wrapped it up and gave it to the girls, who handed them an envelope with three crumpled dollar bills in it.

Thank you notes adorn a wall at the Barneveld Community Café after the owners eliminated prices on the menu so those struggling with unemployment and unable to make ends meet can still get a warm meal. (Photo © Andy Manis)

“They had gone into their piggy banks to buy supper for Mom and Dad,” Cliff says. “Then we had to call timeout for a while because I couldn’t see because of the tears.”

The café opened in September as Cliff “Cooks.” February was its best month and March was looking good until the pandemic hit. The Hooks considered how to stay open and how they could help their community. 

Cliff kept cooking while Yvonne sought legal help to disband their LLC and work toward a nonprofit status. An attorney offered free legal services.

As a restaurant industry veteran, Cliff Hooks runs the café as if it had to meet every standard of a for-profit restaurant but the new model changes some details. 

Local vendors who sell at farmers’ markets have donated eggs, meat and cheese. There are no employees but there are volunteers; the Hooks are volunteers and take nothing from the business “except breakfast and lunch,” Yvonne says. The hours haven’t changed (6 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and the menu hasn’t changed much except having to figure out just how to describe what would normally be a daily special, since the price of $0 makes it technically not a special.

“You can tell a first-time person when they ask you how much something is,” Cliff Hooks said. “Then they say, ‘Explain this.’ Then you sound like the TV commercial (for Turbo Tax) saying, ‘Free. Free free free free.’”

The couple, who live near the café, support themselves with savings and Cliff’s COVID-related unemployment payments.

“When it runs out, it runs out, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said.

Barneveld Community Café owner and chef Cliff Hooks cooks up meals that are priced at $0 at his restaurant. (Photo © Andy Manis)

People can come in the café now, and there’s limited seating according to the established guidelines. But Cliff Hooks likes the drive-up model because it’s easier to control the environment. Besides, it’s through that drive-thru window that the Hooks have gotten an up-close view of some of the good that has come through in these challenging times.

“Oh, the kindness,” Yvonne Hooks said. “We see so much kindness.”