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Social Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century: Common Table's struggle to maintain its mission prompts restructuring 

After laying off its paid staff, Bend's non-profit restaurant searches for a way forward.

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Nate Bettger bounced and patted his newborn son on his chest as he relayed the story of his involvement with Common Table. The familiar tale of idealism put into action, the hope of building community, took a sudden twist when Bettger and the entire paid staff of the one-year-old social enterprise venture were laid off with six days' notice late this summer.

Whether this is a story of broken dreams or growing pains for a nonprofit in its infancy, is yet to be determined. In an 11th hour move to keep their doors open, the steering committee and an interim executive director are restructuring Common Table, which has among other services, offered vouchers for free meals to those in need, shifting to a model that relies more heavily on volunteers and simplifying their menu.

"It was pure economics," explained interim Executive Director, Tom Farley.

Since its inception, Common Table has had trouble finding the right ratio of paid staff and volunteer labor to run a restaurant in an expensive downtown location. Another series of layoffs earlier this year preceded the most recent pink slips, and now the restaurant plans to be operated by a troop of 13 volunteers a day and three newly hired full-time paid staff members.

Farley said that Common Table is on the cusp of the nonprofit restaurant movement and that there are only 16 other such restaurants in the country.

"This experiment is happening around the country," explained Farley, "and we're unique because we're [in] Bend, the involvement of the churches, the support of volunteers and with the mission, but we're not alone in trying to create a space where people can come, eat a healthy meal and experience neighbors in a new way."

Experiment is the name of the game here in the balancing act of an altruistic mission rooted in Christian doctrine and a harsh capitalist reality. The impetus for the founding of Common Table can be traced back to the Cascade Presbytery, which posted in a 2010 ad seeking interns at Common Table who had "a desire to experiment with what it means for Church to gather in alternative, unorthodox, meaningful, dynamic ways that does not look like religious rite but practical action, not leading with words as much as deeds and contribution to the community." First Presbyterian, Nativity Lutheran and Trinity Episcopal are all represented on Common Table's steering committee.

Bettger came to Bend for a similar internship with First Presbyterian and traces his involvement with Common Table back four years. "I remember standing in front of my whole community," he recalled, "and saying this is unbelievable, I feel like my dreams have come true because here we are celebrating community together."

Sitting in the Common Table dining room on its second day back open after a two-day closure for restructuring, steering committee member Donna Jacobson spoke in a solemn reflective tone.

"There's not one steering committee member that is not sick inside their stomach for having to make this decision," said. "There was just too much right to close, too much that's making a difference, that is doing everything we'd hoped to just let it go and so whatever we can do to keep that full value system in place yet keep the place open, that's what we're [planning to do]."

Former staff members all spoke passionately about their draw to Common Table's mission. Jenn Snyder started volunteering with the restaurant shortly after it opened its doors last year and later became a paid kitchen staff member. "All of it comes back to community, that's the reason I was there," she said.

In the days after her final shift at the restaurant, she explained, "[The steering committee] sent me emails asking me to come volunteer, that they hoped that my energy is still going to be part of CT, and how do I do that?"

There was a shared air of not only shock and pain, but stubborn optimism and determination expressed in the reflections of laid-off staff members, already busy looking for new ways to live out the values that attracted them to Common Table's mission.

This is not a simple story of broken hearts along the road to altruism. Common Table's experimentation with attempting to create a space that blurs class lines brings to the surface the deeper implications of social stratification. Jacobson and Farley spoke of neighboring businesses expressing frustration about the nonprofit attracting a greater presence from the homeless community in downtown, of fears of being seen as a soup kitchen and of the struggle "to serve extraordinary food regardless of ability to pay," in a way that does not further demarcate differences in social standing.

So, you could say, the experiment continues.


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