A  chef who once spent a year living under the Franklin Avenue bridge and a hard-charging minister who recently took over a struggling church have joined forces to redefine the soup kitchen.

Step No. 1: "We don't call it a soup kitchen," said the Rev. Mike Matson, pastor of Bethany Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. He prefers the term "community meal." It's not run like a soup kitchen, either. It's run like a cafe, complete with servers who take orders and deliver the food.

Step No. 2: Serving made-from-scratch soups featuring organic ingredients, the kind of healthful food typically not available to people searching out a free meal. "There's no just opening a can and going 'plop,' " said Judah Nataf, the chef, who arrives as early as 6:30 a.m. to start work on that day's lunch.

Step No. 3: Making the soups so unique and tasty that people working or living in the neighborhood will come in and pay for a meal, generating revenue that can be used to cover the cost of the food for the needy. "We try to get the faculty, students and staff to eat here every day as paying customers," said Mary Laurel True, director of community outreach at nearby Augsburg College, where Matson also serves as a chaplain.

Step No. 4: Rallying the support of the church members, some of whom volunteer three days a week — and, at times, even four or five. "I figure that if I can't find 2½ hours out of my day to help people, there's something wrong," said Sherry Reagan, who also has been known to take home the dirty dish towels to wash them.

And Step No. 5: Trying to find some way to make it work — even at times when it seems that it won't. "This is a real leap of faith," admitted Nataf, who went shopping at a co-op one day last week not knowing how he was going to afford the supplies he needed — only to bump into a friend who, upon hearing what he was doing, gave him the money.

"Pastor Mike told us that people will open their hearts and this will work," Nataf said. "But we certainly could use more of that."

Called the Soup for You Cafe, it serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. Diners pay whatever they feel is a fair price — or whatever they are able to.

"When I see people that I recognize [from when he was homeless] dig deep into their pockets and pull out a couple of coins, it really touches me," Nataf said. "It makes me realize how important this is to them."

The program's goal is not to draw new members to the church, at 2511 E. Franklin Av.

"One of the first questions we get asked by the homeless is, 'Are there strings attached?' Never," Matson said.

He became the pastor at Bethany in October thanks to a unique arrangement. The church, which couldn't afford a full-time minister, partnered with Augsburg, which was looking for a part-time chaplain. (There actually are three jobs involved; Matson, who played football for Augsburg, also serves as linebacker coach.)

One of the first things he did was to pull the census data on the neighborhood, and he was startled by what he found: More than a third of the residents — 36.4 percent, to be exact — live below the poverty level.

Even though the church is struggling for worshipers — "we get 50 on a good Sunday" — he felt that providing food for hungry neighbors, even if they don't attend the church, was more important than building up numbers.

"I came in with an agenda to serve the community any way I could," he said. "Bringing people to Christ isn't what this is about. This is about Christ bringing me to be the person I should be."

Following his nose

It didn't take long for Matson to discover Nataf. He was working in his office one morning when the room filled with an alluring aroma. He tracked it into the basement kitchen, where Nataf was renting space for his Soup for You! business, a "soup sharing" operation patterned after a CSA, in which subscribers get an order of soup every week.

Nor did it take long for the two of them to realize that they share a passion for feeding the hungry. A native of Tunisia, Nataf was orphaned as a youngster and survived by begging.

"I spent the first nine years of my life hungry," he said.

He emigrated to the United States and was hitchhiking to California when he stopped in Minnesota — and ended up staying. But he still was struggling, which is how he ended up as a "sojourner" — his term for someone who's homeless. He finally got a job as a dishwasher at St. Martin's Table, the nonprofit bookstore and vegetarian restaurant on the West Bank. He worked there for 16 years, working his way up to the position of "soup master," concocting recipes that earned him rave reviews.

Nataf launched his business when St. Martin's Table closed in 2010. Over the years, he'd been approached by other people proposing a free meal service featuring his soups, but the discussions had never come to fruition. They required too much planning, too much paperwork, too much energy to get things in motion.

He knew right away that something was different about Matson's proposal. Or, more to the point, about Matson.

"Pastor Mike is 'BOOM!' " he said, slapping his hands together. "One minute we're talking about doing it one day a week. Then we're talking about two or three days a week. The next thing you know, we're talking about doing it five days a week."

Like the football players he coaches, Matson charges at opportunities like a linebacker on a full-tilt blitz. Recalling the day that he pitched his soup cafe idea to the congregation, member Owen Green was asked if the pastor had given the members a spirited pep talk.

"He didn't have to," Green said. "He's a pep talk unto himself."

A focus on dignity

The Soup for You Cafe opened on Feb. 2. No one knew what to expect.

"I remember standing here at 10:59 thinking, 'What if nobody shows up?' " Reagan said. "When the first people walked in, we cheered."

There's a sign outside the church that says simply: "Hot soup. Everyone welcome." At least, it's there when the cafe opens. "It blows over in the wind about every other day," Reagan said.

The cafe is set up in the church basement. It's low-key but cheery. There are 10 round tables, each surrounded by six chairs and covered by a brightly colored plastic tablecloth. There's a votive candle on each table and, if someone can scrape up a donation, a flower. There's also a decoration in keeping with the setting: a well-worn church cookbook. For instance, a collection of favorite recipes published by members of Mentor Methodist Church of Mentor, Ohio, in 1965.

Volunteers greet the arrivals, show them to a table, offer them coffee or water and detail the day's soups; Nataf typically makes two. If the guests are indecisive, they're offered tastes of both. "Please ask for samples so we don't waste soup," a sign says.

Once a decision has been reached, the volunteer delivers the order to the table. That's a vital step.

"You sit down and you get waited on," Nataf said. "There's dignity in this. It makes people feel special."

The cafe averages 30 diners a day but has had as many as 80. The volunteers have started to recognize the regulars. Valerie Ludvigson is one of them. She and her father, Douglas, come "as often as we can," she said. "Judah is an excellent soup-maker. I love 'em. They're fantastic."

When he has a moment, Nataf sticks his head out of the kitchen to see how things are going. "I love doing this," he said. "I love feeding people."

Matson works the room, too, although more like the host of a dinner party than a maître d'. He sits down at a table and chats with the diners.

"Our focus is on the community," he said. "Our model is mutuality, and what better way is there to show mutuality than to gather at the same table together?"

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392