First up, the hard details you need to know about the Serene Bean Bistro. It’s located at 118 S Washington Street, in Owosso, Michigan. They are open every day except Sunday, mostly in the afternoon and evening.
Yesterday, Chris and I made the drive up to Owosso to finally visit this donation-model restaurant that I’ve been following on facebook for over a year. I wanted to see how the donation-model way of doing business works in person.
We were greeted by a mostly teenage staff of volunteers, at the counter taking orders, in the home-like kitchen mixing up pasta salad, and in the back washing dishes. Customers lounged in the comfortable dining area, around mismatched tables and assorted chairs. The wifi password was posted plainly for all to see.
We told the volunteers who were were and what we were all about, and asked if they would let us take over the kitchen to bake them a couple of apple pies. They told us we were welcome to use anything we needed, so after a quick trip to the dollar store for more sugar and oatmeal, Chris and I got out our apple mangler and our bowls and got right to work.
It was around 7 or 8 pm when Tom Manke, the owner/founder/director arrived with a truck full of donated produce. Along with a couple other volunteers, I helped set out some of the items on their outdoor tables, where anyone who walks by is welcome to grab a loaf of bread or a sack of fruit. Our apple pies were cooling on the counter by then, so Chris and I sat down with Tom to hear his story.
Tom told us that he used to worship at the altar of consumerism. He was a successful contractor with a big house, indoor pool, new Mercedes, and an ego the size of Montana. That all started to change the day he met Pilgrim George Walter, who Tom first described as a “nut.” “Lord,” Tom asked, “How do You put up with these crazy people?”
Pilgrim George was walking through Michigan, carrying nothing but a backpack with his Bible. He told Tom that when he got thirsty, he said, “Lord, I’m thirsty,” and some car would pull over and offer him something to drink. And when he got hungry, he said, “Lord, I’m hungry,” and again, a car would pull over and offer him something to eat. So Tom invited Pilgrim George into his big house, where his teenager daughters were having a sleepover. Pilgrim George accepted a glass of water and went back to sleep in a stand of trees by the road, and was gone in the morning.
Tom Manke points to that day as the point at which things started to change. Little by little, his treasures lost their appeal and his motivation to be the biggest, the best, the most successful, was drained away. His wife left and took the big house. He thought for a while that he was supposed to go into the ministry, but every time he tried to start a church or attract the kinds of members he wanted, the effort would fail.
Eventually, he surrendered himself completely to the Lord. As he puts it, he pulled over in his car, tears streaming down his face, and drew up a contract stating that he no longer belonged to himself, he belonged to the Lord. “Use me Lord, however you see fit,” was his prayer.
Tom is quick to point out that his success with the Serene Bean Bistro is entirely due to him staying out of the way. He says he learned early on to trust in the Lord to provide, and not stock pile or hoard. In the early days of the Bistro, Tom took a page from Pilgrim George’s book, and said, “Lord, we need paint for the ceiling and duct work.” Sure enough, people walked through the door, having felt called to offer their skills and resources.
Each day, they take in just enough money to keep the lights on. Tom says he laughs when the electric company sends a shut off notice. “Oh the volunteers get all upset and start panicking. I just say, ‘Lord, we got a shutoff notice,’ and within a day or two, it’s covered.”
One of the volunteers started slicing up the pies Chris and I made, and brought out a slice each to me and Tom. I’ll confess, I’m awfully vain, because I still get a kick out of seeing someone take that first bite of pie, and hearing them tell me how good it is! Tom liked the pie, as did everyone else.
So now Tom turned his attention to us, and asked us about the pie project. I started by telling him that I was, in fact, born in Owosso in 1985. Here we derailed.
“You must be Lance’s daughter!” Tom exclaimed. “I did the floors in the house on Ball street!”
I was stunned. Tom had known my parents in the early 80′s when the first married and lived in Owosso. He remembered my father and his law office on Washington and our house on Ball. He remembered me as a small child, and remembered my sister. As I caught him up on nearly 25 years of family history, and explained how I lost my Dad in 2009 to a heart attack, I started to cry. I felt like I had stumbled across a long-lost family member.
After I pulled myself together, I told Tom about how our pie project started with the “maniFEASTo” last July, and 3 store bought pies in Liberty Plaza, and how we eventually quit our jobs to give away free pie from coast to coast. I told him that we wanted to buy a fully functional food truck, so we can serve up donation-model meals all over the state of Michigan. Tom had nothing but good things to say about our project. “If it will play in Owosso, it will play in Ann Arbor!” he declared.
We looked around at the volunteers cleaning up the tables, and realized it was nearly 11 pm! We’d been at the Serene Bean Bistro for almost 6 hours, and we still had an hour drive back to Dexter. We packed up our equipment, exchanged a few more hugs, and got on the road.
Chris drove so that I could sit back and digest the events of the day. I am so encouraged to know that my mission of feeding people without regard for profit isn’t just the radical idea of a 28 year old college drop out – it’s also the radical idea of a 60 year old ex-contractor. I am blown away by Tom’s commitment, and by his faith. And I thought we were living on the edge!
But mostly, I’m just astounded to realize that Tom and I have a 30 year old connection, that this man was a part of my parents’ lives even before I was born, and that somehow, we both ended up in a very similar place in life. I am confident that we’ll be seeing more of each other in the weeks and months to come.
If you’re on facebook, go check out Serene Bean’s page – https://www.facebook.com/pages/Serene-Bean-Bistro