A Pay-As-You-Can Café Cultivates Community in Norwood

Meet Robert Lockridge, the man behind For the Life of the World Café.
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Cameron Kelley knows the word unique gets thrown around a lot, but he still thinks it’s the best way to describe For the Life of the World Café in Norwood. Other establishments might serve coffee and a rotation of breakfast items, such as bagels, eggs, and waffles. Their menus might be seasonal, farm to table, or from scratch. But can they say that most of their ingredients are grown and harvested within a one-mile radius?

Erin and Robert Lockridge with their children.

Photograph by Chris Von Holle

On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday mornings, Robert Lockridge and a staff of one or two others open the café doors to patrons—some who pay, some who pay less, and some who pay nothing. That might be the most unusual aspect of For the Life of the World Café. “You decide,” he explains. “Maybe it’s what you would spend on breakfast at McDonald’s or at a fancy restaurant downtown.”

Lockridge trusts that whatever comes in will be enough to support his family of four and keep the business running. He calls himself a parish farmer, led by his Christian faith to grow food in West Norwood and feed his neighbors with it. “It’s nourishing to me to do the work,” he says, “and it’s nourishing to others to receive the food.”

Kelley stops in the café often, and he first met Lockridge in 2010. He had finished up some maintenance work on a rental property he owned in the neighborhood and was walking back to his truck when he passed Lockridge, digging up the front yard of a former convent with a pickax.

“I introduced myself and asked what he was doing,” Kelley says. “He said, ‘My name is Robert. I just moved here, and I came here to farm the land.’ I thought, he came to farm the land of Norwood?”

But Lockridge did just that. He began parish farming while earning a theology degree in Vancouver, British Columbia. Friends invited the Virginia native to Norwood after graduation. He was looking for a place to live, liked the community, and decided to stay.

The breakfast stir fry, made with sweet potatoes, watermelon radishes, shredded butternut squash, and green beans, and topped with eggs or tofu.

Photograph by Chris Von Holle

He spent his first few years identifying places to plant gardens, working on empty lots and a city park, with the support of volunteers from the surrounding Vineyard Central Church community. He met and married his wife, Erin Tuttle, who believed in his vision and jumped in to help. Soon, there was enough food production going on in the neighborhood to try something.

First came Moriah Pie, a Friday night pizza party for the neighborhood. Every week, the Lockridges and an ever-growing band of volunteers sold pizzas, salads, sides, and desserts, with seasonal choices like garlic leek pizza, pan-fried okra fritters, and peach pie.

“The first e-mail went to a small group, and it said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this thought we’re gonna serve pizza,’ ” Kelley says. “The next e-mail was, ‘Hey, it worked. We’re gonna do it again.’ It turned into a huge e-mail chain—it was the most organic thing I’ve ever seen.”

Neighbors helped gather black walnuts, maple syrup, pawpaws, other fruits, and wild edibles. Sometimes there were shortages, but lean times taught them to do more with less, the Lockridges say. When apples and pears were sparse, they focused on an abundance of crab apples, creating tarts, custard pies, sauces, and chutneys.

“It took a village,” says Don McNeel, another regular customer at For the Life of the World Café, who volunteered a lot with Moriah Pie. The pizza was popular. They added concerts on a nearby piazza to the neighborhood gathering. It went on for eight years.

Robert Lockridge holding a sweet potato that was grown in a jar at the restaurant.

Photograph by Chris Von Holle

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everyone was forced indoors into small groups. The Lockridges took the time to reflect. With two young children, the weekly marathon commitment to Moriah Pie wasn’t sustainable. Erin felt compelled to teach more nature programming at a nearby Montessori preschool and Robert needed a different rhythm.

The neighborhood was still producing food and people were still hungry. What manifested next was For the Life of the World Café, which opened in July 2021.

Now, three days a week, Robert starts work at 4:30 a.m., sometimes snipping rosemary from his neighbor’s plant on the way into work for the bagels. Before the café opens at 6:45 a.m., he brings a hot cup of coffee to his wife, and then works the flat top grill and the front counter until the café closes at 11 a.m.

“People don’t realize the amount of energy and effort that goes into it,” Kelley says. “But Robert’s economics are different from the world’s economics.”

McNeel loves that he sees all walks of life at the café, from students and professors from nearby Xavier University to folks from the neighborhood who just want a space where they feel welcome. He loves that some days, when the fruit is in season, he can order cherry waffles from Lockridge—with cherries picked from a tree in his own neighborhood.

It’s not a bar, but café regulars call the place their own Cheers, and like that old television show, everybody knows your name. It doesn’t matter if you’re a millionaire or homeless.

Photograph by Chris Von Holle

Lockridge says these efforts are about discovering how he can be a force of peace in the world.

“Limiting our gaze to the gifts before us, rather than insatiably looking at all options, is teaching us to cook—and indeed—see the world in new way,” Lockridge wrote in The Moriah Pie Cookbook, which he and his wife published last year. “It is enabling us to discover profound and mysterious beauty right where we are, and it is bearing within us the fruit of authentic gratitude and love.”

For the Life of the World Café, 1766 Mills Ave., Norwood, (859) 760-5701

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