November 20, 2011 / 10:56 PM / 8 years ago

Founder sells Milwaukee cafe for $100, promise of food

MILWAUKEE (Reuters) - For a mere $100, Nell Benton has found herself not just a job, but sole ownership in a restaurant that would seem to be a perfect fit.

It’s not often a viable neighborhood restaurant is sold for $100 and Benton said she feels fortunate to be chosen to run the socially conscious cafe on Milwaukee’s near south side.

Founder Michael Diedrick chose Benton, 35, an out-of-work chef, to take over the National Cafe and Takeaway, an eclectic establishment and anchor for a neighborhood in transition.

Diedrick, 40, started the cafe three years ago with the goal of bettering the neighborhood and introducing Milwaukee to sustainable concepts typically found in restaurants in larger cities. It was valued at about $50,000.

He received two dozen applications for the restaurant and selected Benton from a dozen he interviewed. Benton, who was unemployed and working on a catering business plan, bought the cafe with a $100 bill earlier this month.

“I definitely had higher offers, but I accepted the one with the most promise,” Diedrick said, adding that the sale “got everyone in town talking about the National, and did something we often forget: help someone realize a dream.”

Diedrick, who operates a website design studio three doors down from the cafe, said he had opened it as an experiment with the plan to find the right owner, a process that took longer than he thought it would.

As a condition of the sale, Benton has to keep the staff, maintain the cafe name and keep the food the same for two years. She also must feed Diedrick and his wife a meal a day for one year, and remain in the same location for two years while serving sustainable and local food.

For Benton, who also has worked to help refugees, it’s a rare opportunity to be part of something larger. The cafe is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and she plans to let it out for evening events by area non-profit groups.

“I wanted to be able to marry the two backgrounds, and the National Cafe is perfect for that,” said Benton, who officially takes ownership on December 1.

The daughter of St. Norbert University professors, Benton grew up in the Green Bay area and majored in sociology in college. She started working in cafes at age 14 and eventually earned a culinary degree in Florida.

Benton has traveled the world and studied cooking in Thailand. She also worked in Minneapolis for the American Refugee Committee, an international organization that works with at-risk refugees and displaced persons.

The cafe offers locally grown, organic food. The cafe’s suppliers include Growing Power, a Milwaukee-based a nationally recognized urban agriculture farm.

Sustainability is another focus. Restaurant patrons are asked to return compostable leftover containers for recycling in a backyard garden where cucumbers, cilantro, chard and basil grow on raised soil beds over formerly crumbling concrete.

“It’s a matter of doing things right to show other restaurants to say, ‘hey you can do this, it doesn’t cost that much more, and you should,’” Diedrick said.

Editing by Mary Wisniewski and David Bailey

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