At first, many were skeptical of the concept. Wouldn't people take advantage of a pay-what-you-can café? 

"I think enough people got what we were doing and were excited about it, and realized it was a need in our community," says co-owner Jessica Parks. "That's one of the best things about Kirksville – people are really supportive of their neighbors."

Parks and her husband, Tracy, opened Take Root Café in Kirksville, Missouri, in late 2016 as a pay-what-you-can spot serving healthy fare that is sourced locally as much as possible. Over the course of a year, Parks says, Take Root works with 12 local farmers, plus regional producers. 

"We wanted to have healthy food be accessible to everyone. Adair County is one of the poorest counties in Missouri; 1 in 4 or 5 are food insecure," she says. "[Usually] the cheapest foods possible are highly processed, high fat, high sugar. So we want to make sure people who are on a budget or can't afford food get access to healthy food here."

Each menu item has a suggested donation, but staff emphasize that you can pay less or more than that. If you can't afford to pay anything for a meal, you can grab a meal token off the branches of a painted tree mural on the wall, or volunteer for an hour at the restaurant, helping with duties such as wiping down tables, washing dishes or restocking silverware. Whenever someone pays more than the suggested donation, that money goes toward a meal token to hang on the tree.

The menu, from executive chef Jared Scott, changes seasonally, with entree options such as housemade gnocchi served with either beef Bolognese or butternut cream sauce, with seasonal vegetables, green onion and a crunchy breadstick; or the braised Cuban pork sandwich (the most popular dish) with local pulled pork on a toasted housemade hoagie roll with caramelized onion, chile pepper, pickle, mustard, chimichurri and melted Swiss cheese.

Salads include the beet salad with beets, oranges, pickled cauliflower, candied walnut with radish and an aged cranberry vinaigrette or the Take Root Salad with fresh greens, seasonal vegetables, a crispy soft-boiled egg and honey-lemon vinaigrette. Save room for dessert, such as crème brûlée with a snickerdoodle cookie and fresh fruit, or a poached pear cooked in sherry and served with whipped cream and candied walnuts. Parks takes pride in the fact that Take Root makes all of its breads, dressings, sauces and more in house.

The Parks lived in Tracy's hometown of Kansas City for several years before packing up with their then-5-month-old son and living and working on an organic farm in Peru. When their visas expired, they had to decide whether to return to the U.S. or keep traveling.

"We realized that there's not this perfect utopia that exists. If we want to really see things change then we have to be that change," Parks says. They drove across the country, meeting people and staying on various homesteads and farms.

It was serendipity, perhaps, that brought them back to Missouri. A land deal outside of Kirksville, in northeast Missouri, fell through, but they were eventually able to purchase a two-acre property where they can grow produce and have animals within city limits.

"That's what led us to want to have a café where we could share that with people," Parks says. "We want it to be a community center where people could have access to good, healthy food but also learn about their food – who are the farmers, who's growing the food?"

Parks met with a business counselor, who told her in no uncertain terms that it would never work. They suggested starting a farm-to-table restaurant first, then later shifting to the nonprofit work and a pay-as-you-can option.

"I started crunching numbers and I felt like something – I just didn’t feel right. I felt like I was gonna become a slave to this business and beholden to the bottom line. I just wasn't seeing it fit," she says.

What saved the concept was One World Everybody Eats. Parks came across the Utah-based nonprofit, which helps community cafés like Take Root get started and connect with each other. Parks was able to look at business plans and budgets from cafés in similar markets, including one in Kentucky that was also in a rural college town.

The Parks began fundraising, and eventually raised $40,000, mostly from local donations, plus $30,000 in USDA grants. That allowed Take Root Café to open with no debts – and two years later, it's still debt free.

Meal donations only cover about 70 to 80 percent of operating costs, so Take Root is constantly fundraising and has gotten a lot of support from the Kirksville community. The space is fairly large, so the restaurant often hosts wellness-adjacent classes and workshops, such as yoga, cooking classes, a course on wild edibles and more.

As Take Root heads into its third year, Parks says the goal is to become even more of a hub for the people of Kirksville. She envisions a space where Take Root could focus even more on community education, with some land for planting, growing and harvesting produce with a commercial kitchen and classroom space.

"The idea has always been to focus more on the education and empowerment of our community, so while it's important to feed people's bellies now, the long-term goal is to really create a local food system where people are connected to their food – growing their own food, harvesting their own food," she says. "There's so much from the seed to the plate that we want to do, and get people involved. That's kinda my dream."

Take Root Café, 114 Harrison St., Kirksville, Missouri, 660.956.4671, takerootkirksville.org

Nancy Stiles is the managing editor at Feast.

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