Clinton Hill cafe lets you ‘pay what you want’ for wholesome grub

Rethink Cafe in Clinton Hill
Photo by Clay Williams, Courtesy of Rethink Food

A local nonprofit has adopted an innovative “pay-what-you-want” model at a Clinton Hill cafe, relying on donated money and provisions to feed neighborhood residents who can’t otherwise afford high-quality grub.

Rethink Cafe, on Clinton Avenue near the intersection with Myrtle Avenue, is a project of Rethink Food, a nonprofit that utilizes excess food donated by restaurants and stores to prepare meals for populations suffering food insecurity, all across the country. The Clinton Hill location is its only cafe; its chefs cook up a rotating menu of meals for breakfast and lunch featuring donated ingredients, and lets customers pay whatever they want, with a suggested donation of $5. The brasserie also features a food pantry.

The goal is to do something different from a traditional soup kitchen, under the premise that people will value food that they pay for no matter the price, and that the cafe can become more of a community institution than would soup kitchens or other places you can get food when in need.

The cafe’s interior.Photo by Clay Williams

“People really value food when they pay something for it, and people want to contribute,” said Matt Jozwiak, a former chef who founded Rethink in 2017, during a visit by Brooklyn Paper on Thursday. “The soup kitchen system has been around forever, and we need a low-cost, no-cost approach that is healthier than fast food. But if you only have a couple of bucks, fast food is really your only option.”

Food insecurity is a major problem in New York: Food Bank for New York City estimates 1.1 million city residents, 12.9 percent of the population, are food-insecure, and the city’s rate of food insecurity is higher than the state and national average. Those are pre-pandemic numbers; FBNYC projects the number of food-insecure New Yorkers has skyrocketed since the onset of COVID-19 in the city, as scores of people lost their jobs and food pantries saw unprecedented demand.

The cafe opened in March 2020, at the apex of the pandemic, and served some to-go meals but mostly did “meal production” for community distribution, scaling up efforts the organization already had with its “commissary kitchen” to supply community nonprofits, until the city began to reopen.

A wrap prepared at Rethink Cafe.Photo by Clay Williams

Jozwiak says that the aim is for the food to be nutritious, culturally-appropriate, varied, and perhaps most importantly, tasty. “A big part of Rethink is making sure that people like the food,” he said.

The supervising chef, Kianna Flowers, said that patrons also appreciate that the food has a home-cooked feel to it, just like mom used to make.

“We often try new things, but what people often say about our food, other than it’s delicious and nutritious, is that it’s homey,” Flowers said. “It’s like home-cooked meals.”

On the menu when Brooklyn Paper visited Thursday afternoon was a smorgasbord of seared salmon with mushrooms, broccoli, eggplant, and zucchini with a side of couscous. For vegetarians (such as this reporter), the salmon was substituted with seitan. Also part of the meal was blueberry lemonade, and strawberry rhubarb pie for dessert.

Rethink Cafe, at 154 Clinton Ave. in Clinton Hill, is open for breakfast and lunch Monday thru Friday, from 8 am to 5 pm.