It’s been eight months and over 1,000 bags filled with 10,000 pounds of fresh produce since Canal Cafeteria began nourishing the Lower East Side. And one woman is behind the entire operation. Chelsey Ann Slagle founded Canal Cafeteria to provide immediate relief to those facing food insecurity brought on by the pandemic. True to its name, the organization began on Canal Street in front of the coffee shop Little Canal, with a long folding table, premade PB&Js, packaged snacks, fresh fruits, bottled water, and a goal to feed a community.
With the help of several Lower East Side eateries, including Chinatown Soup, Mission Chinese, Regina’s Grocery, Las’ Lap, Contra and Wildair, Slagle quickly transformed Canal Cafeteria to offer sliding scale, pay-what-you-can fresh produce bags sourced from local, organic farms in the Tri-State area. Each Saturday at 11 a.m., volunteers begin to distribute this food at Rheba Leibowitz Square.
Slagle is determined to expand Canal Cafeteria’s table into a brick-and-mortar food space this spring. Below, she reflects on the organization’s growth, the debut of a Canal Cafeteria cookbook, and their campaign to open the Lower East Side’s first-ever full-time, year-round free grocery store.
How has the pandemic changed your life?
Literally in every way possible.
Before the pandemic, weren’t you working as an interior designer?
I still am. I have one client left, but obviously, I want to do this full-time. I’ve always wanted to work in nonprofits. During the pandemic, I started to look into nonprofits, where I could start and just get in the door. And then the idea to do Canal Cafeteria came out of nowhere. It wasn’t until after I created Canal Cafeteria that I realized, I basically did what I was very loosely wanting to do!
Do you think you could have pulled this off in a different neighborhood? Or did it have to be the Lower East Side?
It’s such a hard question to answer because if I believe in myself, I would like to think I could pull this off anywhere. But I didn’t pull it off anywhere. I pulled it off in a neighborhood where there are so many people who care, so many friends of mine, and a restaurant industry that really wants to give back. Although these restaurants are super famous and a lot of them have a big following, they’re all still neighborhood people, and they care about this stuff.
Would you say Canal Cafeteria has brought the Lower East Side community even closer?
I mean, I like to think so! A lot of people wanted to do something but just didn’t know how. I think we’ve made it easier for them to get involved.
Tell me about your campaign. What is a free grocery store?
We say free grocery store because we want to move away from the food pantry stigma. Not that food pantries are wrong, but I think a lot of people feel intimidated to get free food. They feel like it’s a charity, or it’s take it or leave it. We don’t want to be that way. One of our main pillars is autonomy. We want people to feel like they have choices and empowerment within our space.
How will the store operate?
Certain items that we pay for or that get donated will be charged at-cost. And then it’s going to be about 2/3 free and 1/3 at-cost. For us to offer a wider variety of things for free, we might have to charge for some items, either on certain days or for certain items. We haven’t really gotten to that part yet, but it’ll be a majority free.
How did you get from campaign idea to reality?
I put out a call to action to have some people come on board. Initially, I wanted two people to come help in different positions. I ended up bringing three women on, and they all have nonprofit experience. So now that’s my team. It’s me doing operations, and then the three of them are helping me with our growth strategy.
Do you know where the brick-and-mortar store will open yet?
We put in offers, and we’re going back and forth right now between two places. They both surround Seward Park.
Tell me about the Canal Cafeteria cookbook.
Originally we were going to ask a bunch of famous chefs and food justice people. And then as we were getting it together, I thought, You know what, I would like to dedicate this to the Lower East Side. I think it would be the most representative of Canal Cafeteria.
Are you allowed to give me any recipe spoilers?
Yes! We have 18 recipes. We got one from Jeremiah Stone of Contra and Wildair. He did a chili verde. We got the green fritters from Good Thanks, which is my favorite thing ever. We got stuff from Kopitiam, from Flynn McGarry at Gem, and from Fat Choy. We have Mission Chinese—we got a recipe straight from Danny Bowien, which I think is a huge deal! And we have Las’ Lap, Alex Delany from Bon Appétit, and Bianca Valle also gave us her granola recipe.
Canal Cafeteria had so much growth over the last eight months. What do you envision for the next eight months?
Hopefully, we’ll be open eight months from now! But I see us pivoting more into conversations about mutual aid and food equity. We’ve been on the ground giving out food, so obviously, ramping that up. Every bit of growth we’ve had, I’m like, I can’t believe this happened. And so many people believing in me and believing in my ability to do this and rally people together. It’s super inspiring.
Moving forward, what is the best way for people to get involved and support Canal Cafeteria?
The biggest place we see involvement is volunteering. We’re going to be super active on Instagram, so I think asking people to share and talk about Canal Cafeteria. We really need to spread the word about our fundraiser. If you know of places or people that can help us, this is a community effort! Some of the best ideas have come from people on Instagram.