The Family Table Collaborative is a shining example of the creative ways Cape Codders unite and leverage local relationships and resources to help neighbors in need. Jeni Wheeler, culinary visionary, agent for social change, local business owner, and the former Executive Chef and Program Director at Faith’s Family Kitchen in Hyannis, co-founded The Family Table Collaborative with fellow chef Harry Henry of the Cape Cod Culinary Incubator in March of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wheeler and Henry partnered with Michael Pillarella, chapter president and co-founder of the Cape and the Islands Chefs Association of the American Culinary Federation, and Joseph Ellia, a culinary instructor at Upper Cape Cod Regional Technical High School and former executive chef at The West End in Hyannis. Together, they mapped out a plan to use the food surplus left when restaurants were forced to close due to the pandemic to feed those in need. The Family Table Collaborative was born.
The Family Table Collaborative is Cape Cod’s Community Kitchen
Cape Cod is a world-class vacation destination known for its pristine coastline, wild beauty, and salty charm. Yet so much of what makes Cape Cod special and unique contributes to the challenges many year-round residents must navigate. Among these are the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing. According to Feeding America, 8.6% of Barnstable County residents are food insecure, defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person in a household to live an active, healthy life.
Jeni Wheeler and The Family Table Collaborative team have a “big picture” approach to meeting the needs of Cape Codders. Wheeler shared, “We are addressing the whole ecosystem on the Cape. We can’t operate in a bubble. We start with food, but we also plan to address workforce housing and opportunities for fractional job sharing. People need good food, but they also need a place to live and a job. In addition to providing meals, the Family Table Collaborative will offer culinary education, a makers space, and a commercial kitchen rental space for food entrepreneurs. We want the food we provide to the community to be nutritious and high-quality.”
Since March 2020, The Family Table Collaborative has rescued over 25,000 pounds of fresh produce from local farms, restaurants, and stores like Whole Foods Market. Their team of over 400 volunteers collects 100 cases of produce from Whole Foods alone each week. Volunteers then distribute the food to Cape agencies, who use it to prepare meals for the populations they serve – veterans, families, and seniors. Combined, these agencies have delivered over 100,000 meals from Falmouth and Bourne to Eastham.
A New Chapter for Yarmouth’s Riverway Restaurant
In November 2021, The Family Table Collaborative unveiled its new home at the former Riverway Lobster House in South Yarmouth. Many Cape Codders and visitors to the Cape will remember the restaurant’s Wednesday night turkey dinners and the famous Riverway Cape Cod Dressing (still sold in local markets, online, and at the Commons). JFK is said to have been a regular at the Riverway along with Red Sox legend Ted Williams and former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil.
The reborn property, renovated by volunteers, is now The Commons at Riverway and operates as a café, tavern, and local Maker’s Market. The facility is available to rent for special events, community functions, and fundraisers. The Commons is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 8-noon. Dennis Port’s popular Woolfie’s Bakery, a new community partner, has also set up shop at the Riverway Commons, selling 17 different types of delicious muffins, breakfast sandwiches, and pastries on the weekends. There are also pre-made meals to take and bake at home and a collection of items from Collaborative Partners, like Gustare Oils and Vinegars, BeeBoss Honey, and Chequesset Chocolates. Plans for the Commons include eight workforce apartment units and a community garden space featuring a greenhouse outfitted with hydroponics. A portion of the bakery revenue and all other revenue support running and sustaining the efforts of the Family Table Collaborative.
How is the Family Table Collaborative Funded?
Jason and Danielle Siscoe, owners of the Riverway property, priced at $2 million, have agreed to sell the property to the Family Table Collaborative. The Collaborative has launched a capital campaign to raise the $500,000 needed to secure a mortgage. The Siscoes have offered to loan $500,000 back to the Collaborative once the initial funds are raised so that Jeni Wheeler and her team can cover operating capital for their first year in business. Moving forward, The Family Table Collaborative plans to use revenue generated by The Commons to cover the cost of operating the Collaborative.
“The support from our community has been incredible, but we have a way to go to meet our $500,000 goal,” said Wheeler. “This is such a joyful pursuit. I wish everyone got to do something they love as much as I love my work.”
“Every revenue stream coming into the organization will support the Collaborative. Any time someone stops by the café to pick up a meal or to have lunch, any time the space is rented for an event, or the kitchen space is used, all of this helps the mission of the Collaborative,” said Wheeler.
Everyone Has A Seat at the Table
The Family Table Collaborative is infused with the pure joy, enthusiasm, and relentless persistence of its co-founder Jeni Wheeler and her team of caring, dedicated Cape Cod chefs. Add to that recipe 400 volunteers so inspired by this mission that they jumped at the chance to participate, and a host of local businesses and other community partners committed to its success. This holiday season, be sure to visit the Riverway Commons on Saturdays and Sundays from 8-noon to support the Collaborative and to witness the brilliant spirit of the Cape Cod community.
To support the Family Table Collaborative online or to sign up to volunteer, please visit https://www.familytablecollaborative.org/support-us.