Walking into The Diner feels like you’ve entered any old ordinary bustling breakfast and lunch joint, but it’s actually a social experiment created by Meals on Wheels People, a nonprofit founded by three women in 1969 to provide hot meals to senior citizens. The organization’s Multnomah Village kitchen churns out 7,300 nutritious meals four days a week for anyone over the age of 60 in Multnomah, Washington and Clark counties. Traditionally, they’re distributed to community centers or delivered to homebound participants. However, Meals on Wheels more recently recognized that its clients needed more options.
“We knew that social isolation was a problem five years ago,” says Janice Butzke, operations manager for Meals on Wheels People.
By opening The Diner on East Mill Plain Boulevard in Vancouver, Wash., four years ago, the nonprofit created a space where people could eat healthy meals in a casual yet stylish environment (sterile nursing home vibes are nowhere to be found in the retro dining room with lime green accents). The organization also aimed to draw a diverse clientele to the restaurant—not just seniors. The operation additionally gives Meals on Wheels participants more flexibility in terms of when they can get their food (The Diner is open 8 am to 3 pm Wednesday through Sunday) and what they can order (breakfast, lunch and dessert menus offer items like avocado toast, a classic burger made with locally sourced beef hugged by a brioche bun, and coconut cream pie).
Staff at The Diner are Meals on Wheels employees with the same benefits, and their income isn’t based on gratuities; however, patrons can donate to the nonprofit on the tip line of their check. The organization is looking to use the restaurant as a model and expand its service area, especially to parts of rural Clark County, where people 60 and older have limited opportunities for social interaction.