St. Paul United Methodist Church in Gainesville is hiding the best kept secret in town.
For the past 12 years on first Monday of almost every month except January, July and September, hungry residents gather in the church’s fellowship hall to feast on homemade soups, cornbread and desserts.
The event is First Monday Cafe and part of the church’s community outreach program. It feeds community members’ stomachs and souls through food and fellowship.
“It’s a great opportunity to fellowship and meet with the community,” First Monday Cafe co-coordinator Robert Clayton said.
Cafe hours officially begin at 11 a.m., but some may arrive beforehand to ensure they get to eat their fill of their favorite soup.
“People used to start showing up at 10:30 and going through the lines,” said Rita Tate, who volunteered seven years ago and became the lead coordinator. “People who showed up at 11 were saying, ‘Where’s the soup?’”
To ensure the soup sticks around until 11 a.m., Tate keeps the soup ladles hidden until the clock strikes 11 o’clock. Then patrons pay their $5 donation and choose from the 20-25 crock pots filled with different types of soup lined on tables against the walls for the buffet-style experience. Small cups are beside each pot if a patron wants to taste the soup before committing to a full bowl.
Between 120-150 people scoop a serving of soup into three or four styrofoam bowls on their red cafeteria-style food trays. They can add cornbread to their tray and select sweet and unsweet tea.
After polishing off their soup bowls, cafe attendees may return for seconds.
Among the consumers are First Monday Cafe regulars Kay Puckett and Betty Kruzdlo. The two Gainesville women have been coming to the cafe together for six years and always sit at the same two tables.
They are not alone in their habits. Others appear to have their assigned seats every month.
Puckett and Kruzdlo come early every month to meet with friends they may not see regularly.
“Everybody just knows about it,” Puckett said.
Puckett and Kruzdlo, who are St. Paul UMC regulars as well, plan to attend the First Monday Cafe for the foreseeable future. Especially if the twice-baked potato soup and chicken and dumplings are on the menu.
“People will fight you over it,” said Carol Evans, First Monday Cafe’s founder.
Less than 10 minutes after the ladles were set out, the crowd emptied the crock pot filled with chicken and dumplings, making it a crowd favorite.
“They’ll hoard it back in the back and not let it out all at one time,” Evans said.
But every month, without fail, there is always enough soup to go around.
“It seems, when we have a small amount of soup, God takes care of it,” she said. “It’s kind of like the loaves of bread.”
All soups are made and donated by church members.
“It’s a great fundraiser due to the generosity of our congregation,” Clayton said.
St. Paul’s uses the money for pay for the cafe’s kitchen supplies and finances the church’s missions trips. Church members have traveled across the nation and world to places such as Honduras.
“It funds our mission trips and helps pay for our kitchen,” Tate said. “All the odds and ends ... Pots and pans, that kind of stuff.”
Gainesville native and St. Paul member Barbara McConnell approves of the soup cafe and use of its funds.
“They do such good things with the money,” she said.
But it has another purpose.
“The secondary purpose is to get to know the people in the community,” Ouida Clayton said.
McConnell, who attends the First Monday Cafe when she can, agrees.
“I’m a hometown girl,” she said. “I just enjoy the people.”
The cafe welcomes all community members, not just church members or Christians. And the patrons are as diverse as the soup choices.
“We have new people every month, and then we have our regulars,” Tate said.
In the past 12 years, the cafe has fed employees from the Kubota tractor company and the Cargill company. A group of 30 singers arrived one afternoon to eat. They then sang for their supper, so to speak. Even some staff from the Hall County Sheriff’s Office make it a destination during election season.
Most of the soup connoisseurs learn of the event through word of mouth.
First Monday Cafe had humble beginnings. It was an idea Evans borrowed from another church in 2003.
“It was just a small idea, and that’s all I really had to do with it,” Evans said. “God took it from there.”
Only 35 people showed up at the first cafe meet-up, and at least 25 of them were church members.
“They all looked at me like I was crazy,” Evans said.
But she persevered and compiled a group of faithful volunteers who run the cafe each month.
“She’s really the brainchild behind this,” said The Rev. Calvin Haney, who is the pastor of St. Paul UMC.
And now First Monday Cafe is a church tradition.
“It’s really taken off and become a thing of its own,” Evans said. “The folks in this church have really just gravitated to it and carried it on.”