When I sat down to have a Thursday afternoon lunch with FoCo Café owner, Kathleen Baumgarnder, I learned two things very quickly. First, this was going to be unlike any other kind of dining experience I’d ever had. Second, it is a challenge to conduct an interview while eating really good food. Pardon my poor manners, Mom, I broke the don’t-speak-with-your-mouth-full rule.

As I entered the 102-year-old building on Maple Street that now houses the non-profit café, I met Kathleen, warm and inviting (she’s a hugger). She guided me through the bustling dining room, filled with eclectic donated furniture; refinished wooden tables once used at a girls’ detention center, and chairs given by the Zeta sorority. Behind the counter, her husband and business partner, Jeff, handed me a small ceramic bowl, obliging that I try the pumpkin apple curry soup.

When you reach the end of the lunch counter, however, you’ll notice that there is neither cashier nor register, but filling their vacancy rests a donation box and a placard explaining meal payment options. You can pay-it-forward and make a contribution using the three standard compensation methods: cash, check or a credit card. The other, less conventional payment option, however, involves no monetary exchange, but rather a little bit of elbow grease.

“Your income level should not determine your ability to give back,” Kathleen said. “You still have talents and you have things to offer.”

That’s right, even if your wallet is empty, your stomach won’t be. By washing dishes, bussing tables or preparing food, you’ll receive a hearty, fresh, and organic meal in return (seconds are encouraged). The idea of bringing Northern Colorado a nonprofit organization where “everyone is a part of the solution” is what sets FoCo Café apart from a soup kitchen.

“Jeff and I had been working on this for about two-and-a-half years when we opened on Thanksgiving Day 2014,” she said, explaining their inspiration was drawn from SAME Café in Denver, whom she credits as a mentor.

After deciding they were ‘all-in’ to open their own pay-what-you-can eatery in Fort Collins, Jeff left his teaching job to commit to FoCo Café, which is operated completely by volunteer hands, and no paid staff. Kathleen still works full time as a communications director for the College of Engineering at Colorado State University, but she often heads north on Howes Street to waitress at the café during her lunch break.

“It’s a very fun diversion in my day,” she said.

Most entrepreneurs would likely feel some reservation to opening a restaurant that has no staff roster or dollar signs on the menu, but Kathleen had faith that the Fort Collins community possessed the generosity to sustain this type of business.

“With anything that’s uncertain, there is always some doubt,” Kathleen said. “But we saw it work [in Denver] and we thought Fort Collins is a very good community for this model. And so far, it’s proven true.”

The FoCo Café also brings the integrity of locally-sourced and organic ingredients onto its plates by working with Northern Colorado farmers. The crispy romaine lettuce I enjoyed only traveled a few miles from Quatrix Aquaponics in Laporte, and the pumpkins that spiced up my warm cup of curry soup were grown at Buena Vida Farm in Fort Collins.

(With food this pretty, it's no wonder they already have so many followers on Instagram).

Despite the delicious food I ate, the best thing I was served by the Baumgardners was their infectious sense of belief in bringing Fort Collins together, not as a city, but as a family gathering in the kitchen together.

“Just because you may be homeless, or sleeping in a van, or underemployed, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have the opportunity to not only enjoy good food, but to share it with others,” she said. “I love the fact that a city councilman could be sitting there and two homeless people could be sitting across the room, or even at the same table together. We see a very diverse crowd.”

The Baumgardners opened their doors to the community with the belief that all humans should be treated with dignity, and the understanding that all of us have needed a “hand up” at one time or another in our lives.

“There are so many different scenarios that affect our lives, each and every one of us,” she said. “A drain on your finances really impacts the quality of the food that you’re able to purchase.”

While Kathleen said that many patrons have shared stories about their unique hardships from illnesses to divorce, the pairing of nutritious foods and the presence of a nearby college campus has brought another type of customer to FoCo Café’s tables — recent graduates facing underemployment.

“I’ve heard many more times than I wish I had that eating at the café is their health plan,” she said. ­­

I spoke with café volunteers about their favorite items on the menu, and after everyone raved about the gluten-free corn muffins, I had to meet the woman behind them, Leslie Welsh.

Leslie came to the café with a professional background in both cooking and baking. She learned about the café during the early stages of its development, and couldn’t wait to lend her hand and expertise in the kitchen.

“It always stayed in my head, ‘café... nonprofit;’ that’s what I want to do,’’ she said. "There was no doubt about it for me.”

Rick Rivera enjoys the chili and corn muffins almost as much as he does being a part of the café. He stops by for lunch once a week, when his wife, Melissa, is volunteering. Today, however, Rick tied an apron around his waist and got elbow-deep in dish suds and silverware.

“It feels very, very gratifying to know you’re helping to be a part of your community,” he said. “It’s a good feeling.”

All willing members of the Fort Collins community are invited to lend a hand at the café, regardless of prior service experience. By visiting the website, fococafe.org, volunteers can register, and schedule their own shifts; however, Kathleen said many volunteers are welcomed walk-ins.

“There are times when people just drop in at night if they see the lights on because they are biking home,” she said. “They’ll stop and help so we can go home sooner.”

Vegans, vegetarians and meat-lovers alike are united in the FoCo Café dining room, as the daily menu always accommodates a variety of diets.

If you’re ready to dine at a restaurant that brings a little more to the table than just food, pull up a chair, and take a seat at the FoCo Café.