Magazine / People

Social worker serves up comfort through nonprofit café

Jan Bezuidenhout serves up a meal at the Comfort Cafe

Jan Bezuidenhout comforts the bereaved and feeds the hungry at the nonprofit Comfort Cafe. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Going from running a hospice to running a restaurant may sound like an odd transition, but to Jan Bezuidenhout it makes perfect sense.

Bezuidenhout (MSW ’85), founder of the Denver-based Namaste Hospice, says that no matter how connected they were with the hospice during their loved ones’ illnesses, very few survivors were willing to accept bereavement services.

“They would throw out letters; they wouldn’t come to groups or memorial services,” she says.

So Bezuidenhout took another approach, connecting with grieving family members through the universal language of food.

“I started just socially visiting and saying, ‘Tell me what you remember about your mom. When you were a little boy and you fell off your bike and you skinned your knee, what did your mom make you?’” she says. “I started collecting recipes and stories.”

That’s when Bezuidenhout got the idea for a restaurant that would specialize in recipes donated in memory of loved ones. Inspired by restaurants like Denver’s SAME Café, which lets patrons pay what they can for a meal, she transformed the hospice’s event center in northwest Denver into the Comfort Café, a cozy neighborhood restaurant offering breakfast and dinner five days a week.

“The thought of combining the comforting of the bereaved with feeding the hungry and everybody else and really creating a community, I thought that was exciting,” she says.

Cooking on equipment donated by a local restaurant owner, Bezuidenhout and her partners Sandy Corlett and Barb McGhee turn out a menu of fresh food daily, much of it vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free. Often utilizing produce from farmers’ markets and community gardens, they craft dishes such as Mediterranean beef and orzo soup, braised Brazilian-style pork loin with black beans and steamed carrots with fresh dill.

“We only serve local whenever possible — organic, really fresh,” Bezuidenhout says. “Our basic food philosophy is we usually don’t put more than six ingredients in anything, and if a third-grader can’t pronounce it we don’t put it in.”

As for letting patrons name their own price for a meal, she says, it’s worked even better than she expected. For everyone who can only pay a dollar, someone else will pay 20. Call it karma. “It’s just the right thing to do,” she says. “Maybe people are starting to understand that richness doesn’t come from hoarding and having money — richness comes from giving and sharing.”

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