First Slice Cafe serves up pie with a side of goodwill

Employees Annette De’Anna (far left) and Charlie Patterson (middle) stand with Interim Executive Director Ann-Louise Haak at the First Slice location on Manor Ave.

Since fall of 2009, First Slice Pie Café has been serving up food with a conscience at their Manor Ave location. The eatery encourages people to stop in for coffee, lunch, or a piece of one of their famous pies, tantalizingly on display in the front window’s refrigerated case.

All proceeds from purchases go toward providing healthful, farm-to-table meals to Chicagoans struggling with homelessness.

The self-funded charitable café, now boasting three locations, was never meant to be a restaurant though. Interim Executive Director Ann-Louise Haak tells the story of First Slice’s creation more than a decade ago.

“The pie café at Lillstreet was our first dedicated café,” said Haak. “But when First Slice first started, we did all our cooking out of donated church kitchens.”

The organization’s founder, former chef Mary Ellen Diaz, got the idea for First Slice while on maternity leave years ago, and while taking some time off from the restaurant industry. She was an accomplished chef with impressive credentials, having helped design innovative menus at premiere restaurants in Chicago like North Pond. While home caring for her newborn, she knew she needed to make a change.

Haak said Diaz wanted to be available to her growing family, but she still had a passion for food.

She also had what Haak described as a passion for social justice.

During her maternity leave, Diaz volunteered at a soup kitchen when the idea for First Slice struck her: she decided to begin a meal subscriber program, making meals in bulk for customers to take home in frozen form and re-heat later. Meals sold through this venture funded her mission of donating additional meals to the hungry and homeless.

“Because it was done at such a high volume it was affordable for families and for the kitchen,” said Haak. “Proceeds from that program went to providing that same caliber food to the needy.”

Diaz essentially shifter her focus from preparing food for the upper echelons of Chicago society to providing the same attention and quality nutrition to the lower, said Haak.

As the program expanded, First Slice’s meal subscription program outgrew its homes in volunteered church kitchens around the area. A need for a dedicated kitchen with lots of freezer storage was apparent, and, fortunately, met through a partnership with Lillstreet Arts Center .

“Running cafés was never part of Mary Ellen’s business plan,” said Haak. “But then Lillstreet said, we’ll create some dedicated kitchen space for you on the second floor, and we want you to run this café on the first floor.”

This symbiotic relationship helped the program thrive. Eventually, a second First Slice location opened by the Francisco brown line stop on Manor, and a third location opened in Andersonville last March.

“Each one is its own stand alone location with its own neighborhood character,” said Haak. “The kitchen at Lillstreet is our pastry kitchen, where all the pies and cookies and quiches are made. This kitchen [at Manor] is our savory kitchen. The subscriber meals are all cooked here.”

Haak said volunteers are always needed at the Manor location Wednesday and Thursday afternoons for prepping the subscriber meals.

“We’re currently serving over 500 meals a week with our outreach alone,” she said. “That’s not counting our paid customers.”

Haak is proud of the model First Slice has adopted: a win-win-win scenario for all. Customers purchase high-quality food made from locally-sourced, often organic ingredients, and their purchases allow this same caliber of food to be distributed to those who need it most.

“The motto all along has been to feed those who are hungry and homeless,” she said. “And also to find ways to extend welcome at the table. It’s so easy for us as a society to get caught up in the ‘there’s just not enough’ [mentality],” said Haak. “There is enough for everyone if we are just willing to share.”

Today First Slice partners with organizations like Street Wise, The Crib (a homeless shelter for youth 18-24), the Night Ministry, and many others, providing several meals a week to the needy. It’s a lot of work, but First Slice operates with a mix of efficient paid staff and regular volunteers.

One such employee, Charlie Patterson, said he is proud of the work First Slice carries out.

“When I first moved to Chicago and jumped on Craigslist to find work and saw there was a café that did something more than provide food to patrons, I was intrigued,” he said. Patterson has past experience in what he called security work, or getting food to where its needed most.

“In Nashville we worked with local farmers and took produce that wasn’t being used and we got it to cities,” he explained, adding he has lived in other areas such as Denver and Seattle. “Now I work for a café that does good work.”

The Manor location is located at 4664 N Manor Ave.

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