A vacant ‘50s diner has been given a facelift through the support of donations and volunteers in the Phoenix community. The once black-and-white tile flooring, red sparkly booths and neon signs have been replaced and updated to fulfill a larger purpose — a cafe with a conscience.
Helpings Café Catering and Market is more than just your average marketplace and café, sitting in a remote part of south Phoenix on Van Buren and 32nd streets. Helpings is attached to what seems to be a typical motel, though it’s part and parcel of the nonprofit organization UMOM, a homeless shelter for families.
For seven years, the diner sat empty. It was only used for the occasional party or GED class for residents. It always had a higher purpose, says UMOM Chief Social Enterprise Officer Kate Thoene. The cafe has street-side access and is separate from the rest of the buildings on-site.
The café left the ‘50s behind with a contemporary design. Alternating walls are painted in bright oranges, blues and reds while mid-century style black-and-white cutout posters connect the space to its roots along with a vintage cherry red Coca-Cola cooler. Beth Katz of KatzDesignGroup volunteered her time to design and decorate the space. Katz, a UMOM ambassador, said she loved using her skills to help the organization.
Katz said she kept the main layout of the space, while decorating with interior finishes – color, texture and graphics.
“The graphics are the huge portion of bringing that style,” she said. One such graphic is of a women in a retro bathing suit raising a giant muffin over her head.
Working with a limited budget, Katz used her connections to get construction pieces donated. While products were donated, volunteers did most of the work – from painting the walls to laying the tiles.
It’s a multifunction space and the design reflects that. It’s a nice and clean simple place, Katz said. The café is unique because there are few places like this in the area, it’s “not just a shelter.”
UMOM is in an area known as a food desert, which is a geographic region where the “community has little access to fresh foods and healthy foods,” Thoene said. Families often shop at convenient stores – where the food is expensive and not particularly healthy.
Thoene said she wanted to have a place where people could buy healthy food at a reasonable price, while contributing to the shelter. The profits from Helpings go back into UMOM and its programs.
The UMOM catering company had already been established, which meant the property had a large commercial kitchen. “We wanted to utilize that. We wanted to capitalize on the talented chefs we already have, on the equipment we already have, on the space that we already have,” Thoene says.
Helpings offers free training programs in the kitchen for UMOM residents and a barista training program in the café. Thoene said residents finish the program with a completed resume and enough training to find employment.
“The three components that we have within Helpings is the job training with our barista program, healthy food access with our market area and then, of course, ending homelessness,” Thoene says.
Helpings opened in mid-April, serving a full Starbucks coffee menu and delicious salads, sandwiches and baked goods. While the market is not yet up and running, Thoene said once it opens Helpings will take food stamps.
Over the seven years, the outdated diner was utilized on occasion; however, Thoene said “for the most part it was just sitting here waiting for something great to happen to it.”