Fork Real Café receives $50,000 for "pay-what-you-can" eatery in South Dakota


A palpable sense of thankfulness permeates the din of the daily lunch rush at the Fork Real Café, a small eatery in downtown Rapid City, South Dakota that is intent on improving lives – one meal at a time.

In the dining room of the “pay-what-you-can” café – a 2018 recipient of $50,000 from the “A Community Thrives” grant program organized by Gannett/USA Today Network -- Andrea Maestas, owner of a local medical billing business, was gratified to find a healthy Cuban sandwich and diced fruit cup made with care from fresh, local ingredients for only $5.

In the cramped kitchen, a jail inmate in an orange T-shirt was happy to be out on work release, even as he scrubbed a metal kettle that once held chili.

And whirling around it all was Robert Burns, a formerly homeless drifter who has found stability and a sense of purpose by volunteering at Fork Real Cafe, where he gets a good meal and positive encouragement in exchange for doing whatever chores need doing.

“It’s a family atmosphere here, it truly is,” Burns said.

Burns, now sober and living with a friend, credits his turnaround to Rhonda Pearcy, the founder of Fork Real Café who believes that healthy food, conversation, respect, open-mindedness, spirituality and creating strong relationships are all elements of building a positive community.

“She’s just a person who cares, and she shows it every day,” Burns said of Pearcy.

Pearcy conceived of Fork Real Cafe in 2016 after retiring from teaching and seeking a unique way to make things better in Rapid City, a tourism town of 75,000 people in western South Dakota. After years of volunteering at her church and the local homeless mission, Pearcy heard of a “pay-what-you-can” style café in Florida and decided to visit in 2016.