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Check Out Christie Melby-Gibbons’s Story

Today we’d like to introduce you to Christie Melby-Gibbons.

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
Tricklebee Cafe is the first pay-what-you-can community cafe in Wisconsin. The idea for Tricklebee Cafe was born from a food-rescuing community dinner ministry in Southern California called Open Table. After months of searching up and down North Avenue in Milwaukee, a fixer-upper storefront was chosen as the site of the cafe.

The landlord was initially skeptical about our enthusiasm to transform the rundown space into an eatery. Renovations began in the cafe space in November 2015.  A month later, we incorporated as a Wisconsin nonprofit. Our 501(c)3 status with the IRS was then granted after 2 attempts. (They couldn’t quite figure us out: A restaurant with no set prices?!)

After a solid year of hardcore renovating with dozens of volunteers and a few hired contractors, we then opened our doors in November 2016. We have been thriving ever since, serving 50-70 customers lunch each day. We are a plant-based restaurant that utilizes whatever fresh produce is available. We have never served the same thing twice. In 2020, we were able to buy the building and renovate it from the basement to the roof.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way? Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
Partnering with local organizations doing good work in our neighborhood has been a smooth road for us. It feels very natural to join up with the endeavors that are already underway in our community, such as youth gardening initiatives, job development, food service training, healthy eating workshops, food preservation classes, etc. The main struggles for us have been financial.

We rely heavily on volunteers and food donations to offset our costs, and we know that we cannot rely on only the donations that come in from our daily lunch sales. So, we write for grants regularly (often monthly!). The difficulty lies in seeking out and applying for all of the grants. Some of the applications and reporting processes are quite complicated and time-consuming. We are often denied funds for general operating appeals.

It is not as sexy to pay to keep the lights on and the staff paid as it is to buy snacks for neighborhood youth. We made it through the pandemic, but there were times when staff gave back their wages to make sure that another staff was paid. We hope to gain dozens of more monthly donors to our cafe. A little bit coming in from a lot of people each month is truly what sustains us.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
Creativity is a deep part of who I am and how I spend my days. I am the founder and full-time executive director of Tricklebee Cafe. Six years after opening the cafe, I continue to help nurture it and visualize how it could grow in the future. I help to run the front-of-house and carry out the administrative tasks at the cafe alongside our part-time cafe manager. I also work in the kitchen as needed alongside our 3 cooks, our kitchen assistant, and dozens of stellar volunteers.

We make beauty-full, nutritious meals daily from farmers’ excess produce and rescued food that would otherwise have gone into the waste stream. I have a line of one-of-a-kind earthy beaded earrings called Tricklebeads, which are sold in the cafe. (I have been a beadist for decades, and specialize in using found objects, such as washers, copper wire scraps, motherboard parts, drilled seeds, etc. Tricklebee Cafe is surely a unique place in our city, and we are most proud of our space being a place of diversity and radical hospitality.

We feature local artists’ paintings on our exposed interior cream city brick wall. We also sell local makers’ wares, such as natural homemade soaps, body butter, herbal tea infusions, spritzers, etc. We have intentionally crafted a space that promotes cheerful hearts and continual feasting. In addition to offering healthy meals for anyone (regardless of their ability to pay), and food service training, we also offer spiritual nourishment. Tricklebee is a magical place.

What do you think about happiness?
Seeing all of the smiling faces of our customers, volunteers, and staff makes me happy. It is a delight to see people stepping into their unique gifts and shining as they share those gifts with the world. I love to see our volunteers take ownership of the cafe. One of my favorite past times is chopping vegetables alongside our kitchen crew.

I am also so happy that families with young children like to come in and eat and make use of our small play kitchen area. The play food in that area was mine back in the 1990s when I pretended to have my restaurant.

And it is pure joy to nourish people with plant-based food.

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