Her Restaurant Breaks All the Rules, and Thrives

They said it would never work. They were wrong. Denise Cerreta gave up her successful acupuncture practice to open a nonprofit eatery that helps feed the world. Here’s how she broke all the rules and came out ahead

by Jennifer Margulis
Denise Cerreta, founder of One World Everybody Eats
Photograph: Photo by: Reuben Cox

It took Cerreta two years to get back on her feet financially. Then, with her charitable goals of fighting hunger and educating people about waste uppermost in her mind, she sought nonprofit status, which the IRS granted in 2006. In effect, Cerreta gave the enterprise away. “It’s not mine anymore,” she says in a voice both triumphant and wistful. The nonprofit status also meant her eatery could not call itself a restaurant or café. It’s now a community kitchen, part of the One World Everybody Eats Foundation, with a board of directors that oversees operations. Cerreta is a paid employee whose job description includes doing outreach to nonprofit groups around the country, speaking about food waste and world hunger, and mentoring small business owners. The work suits her perfectly. Cerreta is enthusiastic and outgoing, but also thoughtful and patient.

As part of her mission, she spent a month in Denver mentoring the founders of the nonprofit SAME Café (So All May Eat), which opened its doors in 2006; and she helped create a sister community kitchen called One World Spokane, which launched in 2008. Cerreta also advised a no-waste, pay-what-you-want commercial eatery called Potager, which opened in January 2009 in Arlington, Texas. Like-minded groups in Durham, North Carolina, and Charleston, South Carolina, are planning to open community kitchens this year. She also urges other commercial restaurant owners to reduce waste by allowing patrons to choose from small, medium and large portion sizes.

While Cerreta says she makes less money now than she did when she owned her acupuncture business, she lives comfortably. Because of her travel and charitable work, people sometimes think she has a trust fund. She doesn’t. What she does have is a fulfilling and rich lifestyle. In her free time, she gardens and works on crafts projects (using donated yarn to crochet baby blankets that are sold at the kitchen). She takes long walks in the park with Gertrude, the mutt that she found starving on the streets of Bangalore, India. She lives in a modest, artsy-looking studio apartment above the restaurant, and practices yoga and meditates. She talks every day with her 84-year-old mother, who lives in Canton, Ohio.

Despite Cerreta’s success with One World Everybody Eats, the nonprofit has had its share of growing pains. Last October, after a series of bookkeeping and accountability snafus plunged the organization into debt, the board of directors fired the longtime general manager, and three angry staffers staged a highly publicized walkout. Cerreta promptly went to work in the kitchen herself until the board hired new staff. The organization is solvent once again.

The same month, Cerreta organized a one-day pay-what-you-want campaign in more than 20 local restaurants, with a portion of their profits going to hunger-related charities. The project, part of a World Food Day initiative, raised around $3,350, and, more important, Mayor Becker says, it also raised people’s consciousness about food waste. So, despite some snarky press, personnel difficulties and Rush Limbaugh’s jabs, Cerreta’s local influence is on the rise. “She borders on being a holy person,” Becker says. “She has an incredible heart and a creative mind, and she shares that strength with the community.”

Cerreta also has a dream big enough to fill the rest of her life. “If we could eliminate waste in restaurants, agriculture, grocery stores and wherever food is served or harvested,” she says, “I believe we would have enough food to feed the world.”

Jennifer Margulis is a travel and culture writer who lives in Ashland, Oregon.

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