Café Racer and the simple, radical act of giving food away for free

Pollo a la Brasa makes for a simple, delicious, substantial meal.

Pollo a la Brasa makes for a simple, delicious, substantial meal. Alma Guzman

“Often times people don’t want to see a soup kitchen in their neighborhood, for whatever reason.”

It’s a balmy late-August afternoon, and Luis Patiño has taken a break from the kitchen at Café Racer to sit on the restaurant’s shady patio.

“Somehow, even if they might themselves need it, the idea of a soup kitchen there to help them is a disparaging thing,” he says. “Society has created that image. And that’s understandable.”

Patiño, a 31-year-old Colombian immigrant who considers himself fully Midwestern, is relaxed and deliberate, even as he talks a mile a minute. (“It’s a Latin thing,” he says. “Colombians speak very quickly.”)

Today is Monday, and usually his little corner cafe in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis would be closed. But once a month, he opens for lunch on his off-day and serves a special meal to the community, one that’s absolutely free.

Anyone is invited to come in, take a seat, and be served a hot, fresh, from-scratch meal. Patiño calls the monthly event Breaking Bread (not to be confused with the north Minneapolis restaurant of the same name). 

Luis Patiño in the restaurant during the Breaking Bread event

Luis Patiño in the restaurant during the Breaking Bread event Alma Guzman

“It’s a term that goes back in my family and the idea that you sit down at a table with your family, your friends, your community, your loved ones, and you share a meal. You break bread.”

Take a seat and a server will offer you water and coffee (the only two drink options) and your choice of a meat-based, vegetarian, or vegan entrée. It’s a fixed menu, so you get what you get, but Patiño makes sure that means a nutritious, sustaining meal. Once you’re finished, don’t wait for a bill to arrive. Simply drop what you can, if you can, in the donation box, and say thank you.

“My grandmother taught me that the minute you have a little bit more than enough, you have to share,” says Patiño. “That’s what this is. The second I was able to feel a little bit comfortable about the restaurant and how we were doing, realizing, ‘Hey, we’re still alive after a year; we gotta start giving back a little bit.’”

The event regularly attracts 75 to 100 customers. One day, the tiny kitchen served 175 people. (“My favorite is when we get so busy that people have to sit next to each other and truly break bread,” he says.) Patiño admits that some months it can be tough to pull it together. Uncertainty about making ends meet can rattle him. 

“I tell myself every month that I will continue to do this until I cannot afford to do it. And every single month I tell myself that, it gets less and less likely that I will stop doing it. Even if there’s a hard time, I’ve figured out a formula to scale something back here or there.”

Patiño opened Café Racer in 2015 after two years operating a food truck of the same name. He’s Minnesotan to the core, but the cafe allows him to channel his heritage by way of Colombian comfort foods: arepas, plantains, hot dogs, pulled meats. Many of those popular flavors and staples wind up on the plate at his monthly free lunch.

“I literally got here this morning and was like, ‘What am I going to make?’ I like to make it that day from scratch. I just used that little bit of donations [from the previous month] to go to my food distributor and buy all the things I’d need for today,” he says, adding: “In the wintertime I do soup. That’s my favorite.”

Eventually, Patiño would like for his Breaking Bread project to be a model for other restaurants interested in doing the same.

“I want to open my books to people and say, ‘This is how I’m able to do this once a month,’” he says. “Obviously, most restaurants would be like, ‘The restaurant industry has a 90 percent failure rate, how are you going to ask us to just give free food for a day?’ It’ll come back. I don’t know how it comes back to me, but I’m able to do this.” 

The size of the operation is an important factor here. Breaking Bread is “just a drop in the bucket,” as Patiño puts it, and he doesn’t expect or want his community meal to be replicated on a much larger scale. Anything bigger would be hard to wrangle every month, and anything run by nonprofits would have to rely on “the generosity of other people, and the grant-writing, and the ability to have someone support that structure.” Instead, he envisions small neighborhood restaurants like his own, serving their own immediate communities.

“I understand it’s a fear for restaurants, the idea of all of a sudden taking 5 percent of possible sales and throwing that to the wind to feed people.”

Of course, local restaurants are renowned for giving back to good causes, regularly providing free or discounted food for charity events across the Twin Cities. But Patiño is aiming for something slightly different.

“It’s so much more than just feeding people. You’re creating a community. You’re giving people that moment. People give me moments all the time.”

That moment is a chance to be surrounded by neighbors, strangers, and friends, eating a square meal regardless of how much cash is in your wallet. It’s a chance for people who might be familiar with the local food pantry, or soup kitchen, or fast food joint, to be waited on in a real restaurant, served on real dishes. It’s a quiet opportunity for those with a little extra cash to give back, after grubbing on a plate of chicken legs, Colombian rice, and pickled veggies. There’s something delightfully simple and dignified about it all.

“One can go through and really get into the details of why we’re supposed to do what we do, but it really comes down to this: I have certain resources and abilities; my job is to feed people. I have an establishment that allows me to do this,” says Patiño. “I’m the luckiest person in the world to be able to do what I love every single day.”

Breaking Bread takes place on the last Monday of each month from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.. Check Café Racer’s Facebook page for details.

Café Racer
2929 E. 25th St., Minneapolis