By Katie Ritz
If you peak through the windows of the new café in downtown Versailles, Kentucky, the sights and smells of the tantalizing cuisine draw you closer to the door. Cajun shrimp and grits, chicken pesto pizza and beef short ribs are laid out across wooden tables adorned with mason jars filled with freshly-cut flowers.
Normally, many people living in this community wouldn't dream of stepping across the threshold of such an upscale, and perhaps mistakenly pretentious, establishment. The dollar signs listed on the menu next to those mouth-watering entrees would make it impossible. But at Spark Community Café, anyone- regardless of financial status or background, is welcome.
“Our goal here is if folks come in and they can't afford their meals, they can volunteer for those meals,” said Spark's co-executive director Tristan Ferrell. “Any customers that come in for lunch or for special events and give a gratuity, that gratuity goes towards paying for [the first person's] meal. So it's a cycle of paying it forward.”
Ferrell grew up in Woodford County, and has always had a passion for his community. As a senior in high school, he participated in a capstone course called Community Activism. The students before him had created pop-up festivals called Spark Weekends in an effort to generate economic development downtown. Ferrell and his classmates decided to take it one step further by implementing a permanent community space by opening a café. After three years of fundraising, the restaurant officially opened in March of 2019. Now a senior in the University of Kentucky's Community and Leadership Development program, Ferrell has dedicated his career to promoting community growth and betterment.
“From the beginning, we knew that if people wanted to come in and they couldn't afford their meals, then we would be able to give them a meal and they could help us around the restaurant,” he said.
Araceli Ayala has lived in Versailles for about seven years along with her husband, Antonia Villa, and three children who are all under the age of 15.
Her husband works at Lane's End Farm and has passed on his passion for the industry to the children.
“Every few months, my husband is able to take my children to work with him to help feed the horses in the afternoon,” Ayala said through a translator. “My daughter, Lupita Guadalupe (age four) loves seeing the horses, and isn't afraid of them, even though I am. My son Marco (age 14), was able to drive a tractor outside the stable and he loved it.”
Ayala and her family came into contact with Spark through another community organization called Esperanza, an after-school program run by the Versailles Presbyterian Church across the street from Spark that helps many of the community's immigrant children learn English as a second language, while also offering emotional and social support.
Spark Community Café hosted a back-to-school dinner for Esperanza last fall, and the evening touched Ayala greatly.
“We were so surprised because they made 'pozole,' a traditional Latin American dish that is very difficult to make and is very rare,” she recalled. “We thought they would make typical American food, but they made a dish well-known to us. It was delicious. When it was time to go, we didn't have to pay. The gift that I had received touched my heart and I got very emotional when I tried to thank the employees for their loving act, and for reminding me of my 'patria,' my home country.”
The Spark team told Ayala that she and her family were welcome back any time.
“I was amazed when they explained that the restaurant was open to feed everyone- Latinas and Americans, people who could pay and people who couldn't. Spark gives a warm meal and a glass of water with love, humility and respect. That is something beautiful.”
The organization's growth over the past year has been in no small part to the Woodford County Community Fund. Ashbrook Farm's Sandi Bromagen is a board member of the program, and a passionate advocate for Spark.
“The connection between Spark Café and the Woodford County Community Fund basically started when I met with a group of kids for breakfast and they explained to me their vision for the café,” Bromagen recalled. “To say the kids were impressive doesn't even say the whole thing. They were well-versed and persuasive. We made them a grant for Spark weekend, and from there they went on to start Spark Café.”
The Woodford County Community Fund helps provide the capital to back organizations hoping to get a start in the Versailles community. They have an annual “Grant Shebang” in which they challenge local horse farms to participate by donating money that will fund one worthy program each year.
“This year we have had five farms climb on board with us,” Bromagen said. “Lane's End, Newtown Anner Stud Farm, Stonestreet, Brittany Farm and Ashbrook Farm. We're looking for more farms to join us. The community votes on who actually gets the funds based on where the money is best allocated. It's a community decision, and every little bit of seed money creates a new idea, a new adventure, for Woodford County. Spark Café is a perfect example of the good generated from a community fund.”
Some of Spark's most frequent customers are members of the Woodford County Thoroughbred industry, but in the unique ecosystem that is Spark Community Café, grooms sit alongside farm managers. Barn employees are at a table next to office staff.
“We have people coming in [from farms] who aren't paying for the meals,” Ferrell said. “And then we have folks coming in from Coolmore, Ashbrook and from local government sitting right next to each other. Everybody's talking about different things, but it's an encompassing community space and it's really neat to see.”
Even the chefs in the kitchen have Thoroughbred connections. Executive Chef Isaiah Screetch is a former Sous Chef for Keeneland Hospitality, and several other employees have previously worked at Keeneland.
“The horse world comes full circle here when people come in and dine with us,” Ferrell said. “We get to meet some really cool people who are involved in one of the biggest industries in our community.”
He continued, “Sometimes when we're working and I'm supposed to be getting work done, I find myself sitting down and talking to the people from the farms and learning what they do day-to-day and how their world works. It's really interesting getting to see the different dynamics with them coming in and getting away from the busyness of their industry to see our industry for a day.”
Of course, just like everything else it seems, the Coronavirus pandemic has taken its toll on the restaurant. Just as the café was starting to gain momentum within the community, they were forced to shut their doors to guests after just over a year of business. But this never stopped them from reaching out to a community in need.
“When everything first happened, it was a scary time for us,” Ferrell admitted. “We were sending out meals more than we ever had, especially to school kids who were impacted by not being able to get a free school lunch. We've partnered with Esperanza and have been delivering meals to them for the past five months. This week, we will have delivered over 1,400 meals since March.”
Prior to the pandemic, Spark also hosted a weekly session for the Esperenza middle school students on cooking and good nutrition.
Spark Community Café has been reopened for in-person service for just over a month, and now more than ever they are relying on their community to help them bounce back from the pandemic interruption.
“As we continue to feed more and more people each week, donations are imperative for us to be able to do that,” said Ferrell. “We really do take it week to week, as far as what we're going to be able to do for people. All of our wait staff that comes into the café is volunteer-based. So we really do rely on volunteers every day to do what we do.”
Already, 2,100 volunteer hours had been donated to Spark's mission. In addition, 3,000 meals have been served to the food insecure and $15,000 has been contributed to the central Kentucky farm economy. A good deal of revenue comes in from a growing catering business.
As Spark now looks ahead to discover how they can have an even greater impact on their community, Ferrell takes a moment to reflect on everything they've accomplished so far.
“We've only been around for about a year and I hope that in that time, we've impacted a few people with being able to give them meals and being able to make families comfortable in coming here and joining a real community space that not only belongs to us, but that is open to anybody who would like to come in.”
Araceli Ayala is at least one person who has been forever impacted by the café.
“It is difficult and painful to ask for help,” she said. “Even if it means having no money, I was raised to pay what I owe. When you drive by the restaurant, you think it is just a restaurant. But it feeds people in our community when they are unable to feed themselves. When you drive by the Versailles Presbyterian Church, it just looks like a church. But the church members and the volunteers help pay for the Esperanza program, which is helping people pay for their bills during the pandemic. The love for all the Hispanic people that Spark Café and the Esperanza program show toward us has created a circle of giving- a circle of God's love- and I hope that it will continue to grow.”