At the The Encounter Cafe, a new breakfast and lunch spot in downtown Iowa City, staff members are hoping customers encounter not only good food but good community.

The cafe is owned and operated by Sharon Bethel Mennonite Church in Kalona. Manager Ray Yutzy said they want the eatery to reflect the church’s values of service, care and relationship building.

“We’d like to believe everyone who comes in here encounters something, whether it’s good food, friendship or relationships. If they encounter love, that’s great,” he said.

The idea for the cafe sprang from a similar venture in State College, Pa. A Sharon Bethel pastor visited the church-run Sower’s Harvest Cafe there in 2016 and brought the idea back to Iowa, where it caught on with other church members. Soon, a committee formed and started looking for a location.

The Encounter Cafe opened Aug. 23 in a South Clinton Street building that previously housed the University of Iowa School of Music. The cafe is the first commercial tenant in the space, which has a cozy coffee shop feel, with wood floors, brick columns and a gas fireplace.

Staff members are paid, and the business is registered as for-profit, but Yutzy said their primary objective is to raise money for charities and ministries, both Mennonite and others.

But he said he knows restaurants often have slim profit margins. That makes their other objective equally important — to show their faith to the wider community.

He said that doesn’t mean evangelizing to customers, but it does mean demonstrating their values by the way they welcome cafe guests.

He said they want the cafe to feel like a safe place for UI students and others, whether they’re studying, meeting with friends or just looking for a hot cup of coffee.

The menu includes omelets, French toast and pancakes, as well as panini and wraps, along with coffee and espresso drinks, tea and smoothies. Kalona staples like cinnamon rolls and soft pretzels are baked daily.

“In the Mennonite way of life, food is important, especially as it comes to relating to each other,” Yutzy said.

He previously worked in sales and said he feels this job is where he was meant to be.

“For years and years, I always had a longing to do what I’m doing right now: to be a host, to welcome people, connect with them, talk with them, make sure they’re happy,” he said.


WHAT: The Encounter Cafe
WHERE: 376 S. Clinton St., Iowa City
HOURS: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday
DETAILS: (319) 519-2044,