When INSPIRE Community Café opens for previews this week in Binghampton Gateway Center, it will be a welcome addition to a neighborhood in need of another affordable fresh, healthy food option. But for the core team behind INSPIRE, food is just the entry point for a larger mission.
“The dream was always to have a brick and mortar, having a gathering place that builds community, helps people to connect for the sake of making authentic human connections, and to collaborate for making Memphis a more just and compassionate city,” says owner Kristin Fox-Trautman. “All of us feel very passionate about using our gifts and this business to make a positive impact.”
The concept of positive impact is so central to INSPIRE that it’s built into its founding principles. The cafe is committed to paying a living wage to full-time employees and has adopted an employee profit sharing model. INSPIRE will be donating ten percent of its net profit back into the community, supporting a different nonprofit partner each month (the 2019 partners have already been selected). They also have an apprentice program that will help young people develop culinary and small business skills.
That’s just the beginning of how they’re using the cafe to make a difference, and the more you hear about the plan, the more you’ll want to root for INSPIRE’s success. We sat down with Fox-Trautman and chef Terrance Whitley, another member of the founding team, to talk about their journey and all that has gone into the little cafe that’s out to make a significant impact.
C901: Who’s behind INSPIRE?
Kristin: Our core team members—Terrance Whitley, Charlena Branch, Jackie Chandler Thomas, and Tevin Whitley—we have all been connected for over 20 years. INSPIRE is like a small family business. We started the concept of the business over 4 years ago while sharing a meal around my dining room table, dreaming about a business model that would be life-giving for both employees and the community. We’re all co-founders and we’ve built the business together from scratch. This is truly our business, from the menu to the design to our principles and practices. We’re doing this together.
C901: How did you come to be settled in Binghampton?
Kristin: We looked at a few different places and of course a key desire was to build our café somewhere where the business could thrive. So being adjacent to Sam Cooper, we felt it was a really great opportunity to be able to connect with a broad spectrum of the community. And, we love that this spot is at a connecting point between this large thoroughfare and the Binghampton community. We really love the vibrancy of the cultural diversity in Binghampton, and my husband and I have had the pleasure of building many friendships with neighbors in Binghampton over the past two decades. We had the opportunity to sponsor a refugee family from Sierra Leone many years ago, and they lived just a few blocks from here. And we’ve been able to work alongside a few nonprofits doing great work in the community as well. We love thinking of being a place where people from a community like Binghampton who have so much to offer and also don’t have that many options when it comes to fresh food and economic opportunities — we love to be situated in a place like that and where that meets a busy corridor of the city is a win-win in our mind.
C901: What’s the approach to the menu?
Kristin: We’ve tried to just keep it fresh and simple and add our little twist to make it delicious. I always say our menu is healthy but hearty, and we have options for everyone—vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters, too. Our signature lunch/dinner item is our slow-cooked barbecue chicken quesadilla served with our homemade pineapple salsa. And, we have made-to-order breakfast quesadillas, too—you can go with just egg and cheese or you can pack it with fresh spinach and tomatoes. Our gourmet pancakes are gluten-free (but you’d never know!) and we serve them with 100% maple syrup, not high fructose corn syrup! We have a full coffee bar, fresh fruit smoothies and hand-dipped ice creams from Sweet Magnolia. It’s about having options that will draw a variety of people.
Terrance: Having options and still giving people that dignity to choose.
Kristin: Something for everybody. That’s key. We do have a commitment to where we don’t sell sodas which really contributes to the obesity problem, and we don’t have a fryer. So everything’s fresh to cook but you won’t get fried food or sodas here at INSPIRE. You’ll get a fresh hibiscus tea or a fresh fruit smoothie, or something cooked fresh off the griddle from Chef Terrance.
C901: Chef Terrance, what’s been your journey to getting involved with INSPIRE?
Terrance: My journey into INSPIRE started off as washing dishes at South of Beale, not knowing that I had cooking abilities or cooking skills. I was offered a job on the line cooking by the two chefs. It was simple, they turned around and were like, “Hey man, wanna learn how to cook?” And I was like,“ Y’all gonna pay me more?” and they were like “Sure, get over here!”
From there, I guess it ignited a hidden fire. I look at it as one of the greatest opportunities for somebody who grew up without any skills. I eventually ended up becoming the kitchen manager and then I ended up becoming the Sous Chef. Come to find out, I was pretty good. I didn’t know I was that good.
I was really grateful for this dude named Carl White, CJ. He was the chef who taught me. Still my friend to this day. He basically grabbed my hand and ran with it.
C901: So in the way that you’ve sort of apprenticed into cooking and running a kitchen, you’ll be doing that for others through INSPIRE’s apprentice program. Was that an important component for you, to teach others?
Terrance: Even if it wasn’t cooking, if there’s something that I know that you don’t know, and you’re willing to learn, I would gladly teach you whatever it is because somebody taught me, so I just pass it on. That’s just the game. That’s how I look at it. I can’t be stingy with the knowledge because somebody gave it to me.
C901: What are some other aspects of your business that you are most proud of?
Kristin: With our mission of building a more just and compassionate community, we take very seriously seeking business partners who are persons of color or women. Finding partners that we can work with who can be a part of our mission. For example, we’re partnering with Araba’s Sweet Spot, a vegan cookie business owned by Yolanda Manning, and Sweet Magnolia’s out of Clarksdale, Mississippi that’s going to provide our freshly made ice cream. Mr. Hugh [Balthrop] is an African-American businessman who’s done an amazing job building his business and using locally grown products for his ingredients. [We’re] looking for other examples of who has done it the right way and has done it with similar values as ours and partnering with them.
C901: What have you learned in launching INSPIRE?
Kristin: There are so many little details that go into building a small business from scratch, and I had to learn to be kind to myself and patient because it has taken longer than I thought. Sometimes you feel like you’re taking two steps forward and then a step backward. But all of us are working other jobs and raising children at the same time, so, we’ve tried to have fun along the way and to be kind to ourselves as we’re figuring it out. We hope that our customers will come and have fun with us and also be patient with us, too as we figure it out together.
C901: What advice would you share for others who want to impact an issue in Memphis like the INSPIRE team has done?
Kristin: There’s a quote by Frederick Buechner, he says “Vocation is the place where your deepest gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” Finding your joy and where your gifts and your talents are and where those connect with human need in the community. Also, it’s so much about relationships. Ultimately, we’re here to create the beloved community. It’s about interacting with people in an authentic way and not just running around doing good, but connecting with people and seeking mutual benefit in the work. You’re not here to save anyone, just to connect with others in a meaningful way to grow together. Then, just one foot in front of the other. One day at a time, right? Start small and then you never know where it will go.