The Story Behind Freedom a la Cart’s new Downtown Café

The nonprofit begins a new chapter at its gathering space and Downtown café, which opens to the public April 5.

By Jill Moorhead
Freedom a la Cart CEO Paula Haines (left) and executive chef Laurie Sargent inside the nonprofit’s new café on Spring Street.

Mandie Matthews loves making barbecue pork tacos for her friends and family and takes joy in inviting them into her home to gather around food. But “home” hasn’t always come easy for her. 

Matthews was 19 and working as a business banker when her friend’s boyfriend placed them both on a classified website for escorts. Speaking in a February interview, Matthews says she made good money as an escort and felt glamorous. She didn’t think it was a problem, until it was. She got into harder drugs and started “working the block, getting in and out of cars.” She lost everything, including custody of her son. 

Going to jail in January 2016 brought clarity for Matthews, who is now 31. She reached out to CATCH Court, a specialty docket for women in the justice system who are victims of human trafficking, presided by Franklin County Municipal Judge Paul Herbert. (CATCH stands for Changing Actions to Change Habits.) It was there that she met Paula Haines, CEO of Freedom a la Cart, a Central Ohio nonprofit and catering company that works to heal and empower sex trafficking survivors by helping them gain practical job skills and self-sufficiency. 

“I said I wanted to work, to get a job,” Matthews says, “and Paula pulled me aside and gave me a card and said that when I was allowed, to give her a call.” Once approved by CATCH Court, Matthews applied and was given a position in Freedom a la Cart’s workforce development program. 

Mandie Matthews is a resource manager at Freedom a la Cart

Today, Matthews is a resource manager on Freedom a la Cart’s management team. She works with survivors of sex trafficking to help them find housing, enter treatment programs, deal with food crises and apply for utility assistance and education programs. She now owns her own home and has regained custody of her son. 

Freedom a la Cart’s story has many twists and turns as well. Launched in 2011, the nonprofit paired with CATCH Court to provide a pathway for survivors. Over the past 10 years, Freedom has been a food cart (which was used until it could no longer function), a wedding caterer, a pop-up in Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Northside Branch, a server of lunches to the homeless and, primarily, a box lunch and catering company. And in those 10 years, the organization has led a nomadic existence, moving operations from space to space, relying on places like Tree of Life Ministries, the Van Buren Shelter and the YMCA Men’s Shelter to call “home.” 

Until now. This April, Freedom a la Cart Café + Bakery will open a permanent home (at least for the next 10 years) at 123 E. Spring St. in Downtown Columbus, providing its fans and supporters—for the first time ever—a brick-and-mortar place to enjoy Freedom’s fare. The fast-casual eatery, bakery and coffee shop, overseen by executive chef Laurie Sargent, will serve breakfast and lunch 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. The 2,500-square-foot restaurant offers indoor and outdoor seating, as well as its own parking lot on the building’s west side. Haines says the space will be available in the evenings for private gathering rentals. 

Roasted carrot salat at Freedom a la Cart

On a windy Saturday in February, Haines sits in one of the front windows of the forthcoming café, as light pours into the bright white space with mint and terra cotta accents. Her task for the day is to sample possible menu items. She knows that the café will carry baked goods like croissants, muffins and scones, as well as some classics that Freedom’s catering menu is known for, but the new space will allow for more menu options. Haines says there will be Crimson Cup coffee and espresso drinks, as well as a breakfast sandwich and a sandwich called Don’t Judge Me, named for Herbert. As we chat, consulting chef Lara Yazvac brings out colorful dishes, one by one. 

There’s a raisin coconut turmeric chai porridge with farro that is a story in itself. (“We want to bring back the word ‘porridge,’” an employee says.) And there’s a sweet and salty yogurt bowl that looks like a breakfast bibimbap with granola, chia pudding with coconut milk, raw apricot jam and stewed blueberries. 

And there’s plenty of action happening behind the scenes at Freedom’s new facility. In the basement of the building, which once housed Otis Elevator Co., three women who are part of the workforce development program gather around a table preparing Tuscan creamy chicken and a side salad for the nonprofit’s weekly meal service, Freedom at Home. They’re listening to Beyoncé and talking as they work. Later the same day, these meals will be delivered to homes around the city. 

Pastries at Freedom a la Cart

Atop the café, on the second floor, is the Freedom Loft, a safe space for congregating that is available only to the women the nonprofit serves. The center has ample natural light, two rooms for private meetings, work stations with laptops, a small kitchenette and services like career support, trauma yoga and self-defense classes. 

“The best part [about the Freedom Loft] is the aspect of feeling safe,” says Matthews, who used to host meetings in public places like libraries. “Our women know who’s in the space, and they know who is not in the space. With trauma, the unexpected is a big fear. Knowing that they don’t have to wonder who’s coming out of the door is good. Nothing bad is going to happen to them while they’re there.” 

The new Downtown facility provides a centralized location for the women they serve and will allow Freedom a la Cart to double the number of women who can access its services to 600 a year. And the program sees results. According to Freedom’s website, 80 percent of the women who have gone through its program for workforce training have not been picked up on new charges. According to a 2019 report from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, Ohio ranks among the top 10 worst states in the nation for human trafficking. And each year, there are an average of 1,200 to 1,500 arrests in Franklin County for prostitution, says Freedom’s website. Of that number, 92 percent are identified as sex-trafficking victims, trafficked since an average age of 13. 

The blueberry bowl at Freedom a la Cart on Spring Street

When asked how this could happen, Haines shares a common scenario. Traffickers will build relationships with women who may not, and often don’t, have a lot of stability in their lives. They shower these women with attention, gifts, shopping sprees and trips to the nail salon, all while separating them from the positive healthy relationships they have. The women may move in with their trafficker, Haines says. “Then the trafficker says, ‘I helped you. Now you help me.’” 

Now that Freedom a la Cart has put down roots in Downtown Columbus, Haines is interested in expanding the organization’s mission into other cities. “Every time we speak in other communities, they’re like, ‘We need this here,’” she says. The organization has a three-year plan to launch in another market, most likely in Ohio. 

And that mission goes far beyond coffee, scones and sandwiches. Just by purchasing one item at the café, “it’s going to help a woman find her freedom, to be self-sufficient, to go to college,” Matthew says. “To show a woman who didn’t believe that she could do things, [that she can] do things.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story included a misleading statistic on human trafficking in Ohio, stating that 450 cases of human trafficking were reported across the state in 2019. That statistic was “based on the contacts -- phone calls, texts, online chats, emails, and webforms -- received by the National Human Trafficking Hotline that reference Ohio.” The statistic does not accurately account for all human trafficking cases in Ohio in 2019.