Welcome to Tricklebee Cafe, Where Customers Pay What They Can

A cafe offers inclusion and simple, pay-what-you-can dining.

The new Tricklebee Café near Washington Park, located in a long-vacant storefront at 4424 W. North Ave., is comfortable with ambiguity. It’s a religious and spiritual space, and it’s not. You walk up to an old church pulpit to order, but, when I visited, R.E.M. was singing, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” Most dishes are vegan. But some have dairy, and a few meat, such as when a farmer donated 10 pounds of lamb, which wound up stuffed inside half-moons of pita bread.

Tricklebee is open Wednesday through Saturday for lunch and Thursday night for a buffet-style “Agape” meal. The menu changes daily, depending on food donations and the produce in season (the outfit has a couple community garden plots). The price is always pay what you can.

This can create a moral dilemma when ordering, because you could conceivably devour everything on the menu for free. What happens instead is most people order modestly and leave a donation in a small churn. On a recent Saturday, one of the part-time chefs, Retona Wilson, who lives nearby, was offering black bean and sweet potato soup, Waldorf salad, a cheese quesadilla, almond butter and chutney panini, herb dip with butternut squash chips, sweet potato pie, oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies and brownies.

A young pastor in the Moravian tradition, Christie Melby-Gibbons moved to Milwaukee from the Los Angeles area in 2015, hoping to start a pay-what-you-can cafe amid what she and Moravian leaders had identified as one of the most economically troubled cities in the country. The result, pulled together with the labor of some 90 volunteers, was Tricklebee, which opened in November. Since then, Melby-Gibbons has stood behind the pulpit taking orders instead of making sermons. Next to the minister, who has tattoos of butterflies on her forearms, a hymn board displays the day’s dishes on handwritten cards.

The cafe’s name echoes the saying, “The trick’ll be finding enough funding.” Photo by Moriah Bame

The dining room is an assemblage of old materials, including a patterned tile floor, weathered wooden planks and Cream City bricks. The tables encourage communal eating with a great long pew for seating and a couple of rectangular tables (reminiscent of The Last Supper). Wilson, and Taylor DeNaples, who works at the cafe through the Lutheran Volunteer Corps organization, pulled a thick cookbook called The Enchanted Broccoli Forest out of a stack near the dining room: This was where several of the restaurant’s recipes for earthy sandwiches, soups and sweets had come from.

Tricklebee also has a “creative” night (Wednesday) where they put our art supplies and tea and baked goods for all, attended by a mixture of neighborhood residents and outsiders. The door is open to those able to pay full-market cost and those who can’t. According to DeNaples, one such regular said he felt equal: “He felt very welcome.” ◆

‘Unified Meals’ appears in the April 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 3, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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Matt has written for Milwaukee Magazine since 2006, when he was a lowly intern. Since then, he’s held the posts of assistant news editor and, most recently, senior editor. He’s lived in South Carolina, Tennessee, Connecticut, Iowa, and Indiana but mostly in Wisconsin. He wants to do more fishing but has a hard time finding worms. For the magazine, Matt has written about city government, schools, religion, coffee roasters and Congress.