When Cafe Owner Sees Panhandlers, He Does Not Oust Them, He Feeds Them

Charlotte Doran
Collin Doran has given away thousands of free breakfasts like this one at his Homemade Cafe in Berkeley.

Soon after Collin Doran purchased the Homemade Cafe in Berkeley, Calif. in 2011, he noticed homeless people would sometimes stand outside of his restaurant and ask customers for money or food.

It pained him to see them go hungry, so he came up with a plan: He’d give anyone in need a free two-egg breakfast with the works, no questions asked.

“Instead of ushering people away, I told them, ‘If you’re hungry, let us know and we’ll feed you,'” said Doran, 53. “Right away, people started taking me up on it.”

Twelve years and thousands of free breakfasts later, his offer still stands. But now, Doran’s customers are also chipping in to keep the free breakfasts coming.

“My customers raised more than $30,000 for the restaurant through a GoFundMe I started last fall when we were struggling financially,” Doran said, noting that he’d drained his savings account of $200,000 to keep his employees paid for two years during the pandemic.

“It became clear to me that the reason customers wanted to help was because they’d seen how we’d fed people in the community over the years,” he added. “People didn’t want to lose that. It made sense to continue to provide them with a way to chip in.”

Since January, for every $5 donated by a customer, Doran has posted a “free meal” ticket on a bulletin board in his diner to be used by anyone who is hungry.

He said he estimates that $5 is enough to help cover the cost of an “eggs any way” breakfast, served with potatoes, toast and coffee.

“But on days when we run out of tickets, we keep serving free meals anyway,” Doran noted. “Nobody should go hungry. This is the right thing to do.”

During the pandemic, Doran said he noticed an uptick in people needing food assistance in the Berkeley area, and not all were homeless. Like many people around the country, they needed help during the economic downturn, he said.

“Some people had lost their jobs and were struggling financially, or they were having to cut back due to inflation or rent increases,” he said, noting that the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in his university town is $2,250 a month.

This year, Doran decided to put an “Everybody Eats” sign on the Homemade Cafe’s front door and make his free breakfast plan more official.

“I wanted anyone walking by to know they could get a free hot meal here,” Doran said, noting that about 5 to 10 people now pick up a meal ticket from the bulletin board each day.

One of those people was Daniel Amokye, who lives in a homeless shelter in Berkeley.

When a friend told him he could get a free hot breakfast at the Homemade Cafe, “it was like a blessing,” said Amokye, 56.

Charlotte Doran
Collin Doran stands outside the Homemade Cafe, his restaurant in Berkeley, Calif.

“I enjoyed it so much, I started coming in for breakfast two or three times a week,” he said. “Collin is such a caring person – he loves everybody, no matter your situation or where you came from.”

Two months ago, Doran hired Amokye to work as a dishwasher at the cafe.

“Now I’m here pretty much every day – grateful for the chance to work,” he said. “Collin and his cafe have touched many lives, but especially mine.”

Doran said he learned the importance of helping those in need from his grandfather when he was growing up in Berkeley.

“When I was 12, we were settings things up for Thanksgiving dinner and he told me, ‘Remember – you should never look down on anyone,'” he said. “That always stuck with me.”

As he grew older, he became a regular customer at the Homemade Cafe, which opened in 1979, serving comfort food at breakfast and lunch, he said.

“I started working here in 1999, and when the opportunity came to buy the cafe, I took it,” Doran said. “It’s always been a great little gathering spot for the neighborhood.”

He said he was inspired by the Black Panther Party to keep hungry people in his community fed.

“In 1969, the Black Panthers started a free breakfast program in Oakland that was adopted nationwide,” Doran said. “They knew that change could only be made through action, and that’s what I’m now doing here.”

His customers are also happy to play a part.

“It’s common decency to take care of people in need,” said cafe regular Suzanne Skrivanich, a part-time English teacher who donates $100 a month to Everybody Eats.

“I’ve seen Collin give away lots of meals over time, so I’m happy to contribute,” she said, adding that Doran’s cause has helped to bind the neighborhood together.

“When covid started ramping down, a lot of people were walking around on the edge,” noted Skrivanich, 66. “You have no idea how many people this man has taken care of. He’s made a difference with nutritious hot meals for thousands.”

Doran said he and his 15 employees are happy to keep the free egg breakfasts coming.

“My hope is that other restaurants around the country will be inspired to do something similar in their own neighborhoods,” he said. “A lot of people don’t have safety nets in this country, and it’s become a widespread problem.”

“My belief is that society is only as good as its poorest person,” Doran added. “To me, food is love. I feel good when I go home at night, knowing that I helped provide a meal to somebody who needed one. Everyone deserves to eat.”

Charlotte Doran
A weekend breakfast crowd at the Homemade Cafe. Many of Collin Doran’s customers pitched in to keep the restaurant running when Doran was struggling financially.