The new kid on the corner of Church and Dodge, First Slice Pie Café, believes in just desserts.
Chef Mary Ellen Diaz’s inclination to right inequities led her to found First Slice, a non-profit dedicated to serving quality meals to those in need – to “giv[ing] the first slice of pie to those used to living on crusts.” The Evanston café is not only an appealing destination for a meal or a coffee but another manifestation of the organization’s mission.
Ms. Diaz can trace her sense of mealtime injustice to her stint as a volunteer cook in soup kitchens while on leave from restaurant work after the arrival of her second child.
Her cooking drew smiles from a crowd who would never dine at Printers Row or North Pond Café or Rich Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You group, where Ms. Diaz had honed her skills.
It struck her that what the poor and homeless deserved was to eat as well as the patrons of the upscale restaurants where she had worked.
Realizing she could use her expertise to make “amazing” meals for those in need, she writes on the website, she committed to finding a way to fund her dream. Once she noticed how she, a stay-at-home mom, struggled to get dinner on the table, she settled on a subscription plan that would offer three frozen meals a week, plus sides and desserts, for families or singles.
Subscription receipts still help underwrite home-cooked dinners for people in need – not meals made from leftovers but the same restaurant-quality food First Slice prepares for its subscribers.
The joy of cooking rather than traditional fundraising drives First Slice chefs, who prefer “rolling up our sleeves and cooking for every dollar,” Ms. Diaz says on the website. A delicious meal, she continues, is a magnet for subscribers and café customers and an attraction for those who are more likely to avail themselves of an organization’s services when good food is involved.
Ten years after First Slice was founded, Ms. Diaz’s mission is alive in the three social service centers (Streetwise and The Night Ministry among them) where community volunteers and First Slice staff serve sumptuous dinners to more than 600 people. The same spirit animates the kitchens that prepare food for subscribers and in the group’s three cafes in Chicago and the fourth and newest in the Gibbs-Morrison Cultural Center kitty-corner from Evanston Township High School. The City of Evanston, having bought and refurbished the former Boocoo, reached out to First Slice, confident that “Evanston will appreciate the work we do,” says Café manager and Evanston native Nick Batlle.
The building they named after two African American entrepreneurs who once lived in the neighborhood has a bright new countenance. On the east side of the building is a rentable space for meetings or parties. The sunny café, furnished with wooden tables, bright red chairs and comfortable lounge area, is the cheerful occupant of the west side. A patio, slightly set off from Dodge Avenue by a wall of tasseled grass, invites passers by to sit awhile in the shade of an umbrella and sip a coffee or iced tea in the waning days of summer.
With Ms. Diaz living in Switzerland, a team comprised of Executive Director Ann-Louise Haak, Chef Carlos Contreras, and Mr. Batlle is in charge of Café operations in Evanston. Still running on an abbreviated schedule, they have a few positions left to fill and intend to hire Evanstonians to join the three cooks and five baristas already on staff. The staff is seeking input on menu items and hours in its quest to integrate with the neighborhood.
The Evanston venue is the smallest café in the First Slice constellation and the only one outside Chicago. Subscription meals – and pies – are made in the larger kitchens of the Chicago cafés. But like its Andersonville, Ravenswood Manor siblings, the Gibbs-Morrison place features homemade deli salads and sandwiches as well as 10 kinds of cookies and small pastries prepared onsite.
Pie, the signature item and iconic dish, is available in at least 10 flavors all the time, with some 14 more varieties baked to order with 48-hour notice. Pie became a symbol of community for First Slice, as it was in the restaurants Ms. Diaz had known, where the first slice, the most important, was always served to the staff.
But here, in all their glory, the pies of First Slice are not symbolic but mouth-meltingly real, from Michigan sour cherry to French silk to coffee toffee to balsamic raspberry, $3.50 a slice or $22-25 a whole pie.
Whether or not they follow the logic of Yogi Berra, who said, “Cut my pie into four pieces. I don’t think I could eat eight,” customers may find that with all these choices, their first slice is not their last.