People don’t just visit Uncommon Grounds Cafe in Aliquippa for the food. But, let me tell you, the food is delicious.
Panini’s made with fresh cut bread, homemade soups, made-to-order breakfasts, fresh desserts baked daily, plus a variety of drinks – hot and cold, coffee and tea, milkshakes and smoothies. And then there are the daily specials – pulled pork, chili, lasagna, ribs, mac ‘n cheese…did I mention it’s all homemade?
Food this good can’t be this cheap. But it is, because the food isn’t the point.
A Place to be Heard
The main point of the Cafe, the reason it opened its doors in 2001, was to serve people.
Uncommon Grounds Cafe is a cooperative venture of the local people of Aliquippa and local churches working together to provide a safe place for anyone and everyone. A place to be heard, to be known, to be appreciated and accepted.
It’s so much more than a place to grab a quick meal or drink. It’s a ministry. It’s a place where the lonely, the outcast, the hurting can come together and find a friend who will listen. It’s a place where people of all ages and races can walk through the doors, create together, and change Aliquippa.
Aliquippa, like so many other towns along the Monongahela and Ohio rivers, was an ideal location for industry. When Pittsburgh was emerging as a major steel making hub in the late 1800s, Jones and Laughlin Steel Corp. sought to expand downriver and purchased a huge lot of land along the banks of the Ohio River to build one of the largest integrated steel mills in the world.
Thousands of immigrants flooded into Aliquippa to find jobs and the area experienced an era of prosperity – businesses lined Franklin Avenue, housing developments where built all over the area, generations of families were living in Aliquippa and life was good.
But like all good things, the era of big steel came to an end. Like many towns in Pennsylvania and throughout the Rust Belt, Aliquippa went into a depression. J&L was gone. As were the stores on Franklin Avenue. With nowhere to work, many families packed up and left to begin life elsewhere.
For many years, some would say Aliquippa lost its hope and its creativity.
Then John Stanley, a Church Army officer from Australia, moved to Aliquippa. He purchased an old store front and with the help of many volunteers from local churches, remodeled the old building into a cafe.
Meet Herb Bailey
After 14 years of service in Aliquippa, Stanley felt called to return home and left the Cafe in the hands of current Ministry Director, Herb Bailey. Bailey, along with Operations Director Scott Branderhorst and many volunteers, continue the work what Stanley started.
“We are a place of respite for the weary neighbor, a place of encouragement for the local entrepreneur who dreams of being their own business owner, a place where people that want to give back, whether it is court-mandated or soul-mandated and are allowed to engage others in a safe environment. We are a hub of opportunity and a bastion of hope, joining others who also are looking for hope. We hope to offer dignity in a way that says we recognize that no matter your story, you are precious in the sight of God,” said Bailey.
The Cafe is open Tuesday through Saturday, unlocking its doors for an early breakfast and often staying open into the evenings for meetings, bible studies, art classes, writing workshops, movie nights and a weekly community worship service called “Church in the Margins.” Throughout the summer, many churches from around the country come to Aliquippa to help with community service projects through the Cafe.
“All of our projects are born out of relationships, not the other way around,” said Bailey.
Open Mic Night
Thursday is one of the biggest nights for the Cafe. Drive down Franklin Avenue on any Thursday night and you will find a bright spot along a stretch of road where most businesses are dark and closed for the day. It’s “Open Mic Night” at the Cafe. People sit around tables, sip hot coffee and converse, surrounded by walls covered with colorful artwork. There is a constant rotation of young and old, male and female, black and white, taking the stage to sing a song or recite poetry.
The food is good and the goal is love…and the recipe is working. While taking the the time to answer a few questions for me about the Cafe, Bailey had this story to tell me, “Two people in the past 20 minutes have said that this is a safe place for them. One said this is like a holy place, and another said this is the only place outside of his house that he feels safe. That is the goal, to be a safe place for people to come and be themselves, to build community. Plus we have great food and coffee and a ridiculously cheap price point. We feel like we are making a difference because people tell us just that.”
For more information about how you can help with the ministry of Uncommon Grounds Cafe, visit! (380 Franklin Ave, Aliquippa) Volunteer duties range from cooking food and making drinks, community service projects, and porch sitting. Financial donations are always accepted; please visit uncommongroundscafe.org.