The "Community Canteen" at Maria's allows neighbors to get a free meal or pay what you can, which will help fund more meals. Credit: Facebook/Maria's Packaged Goods & Community Bar

BRIDGEPORT — A Bridgeport favorite has decided to try something radical during the pandemic: operating as a free or pay-as-you-can restaurant.

Kimski, the sister restaurant to Maria’s Packaged Goods & Community Bar, debuted its Community Canteen last week. The idea is to offer free or pay-what-you-can meals to-go, said Ed Marszewski, co-founder of Kimski and Maria’s.

Community Canteen is an extension of Kimski’s community kitchen effort, where the restaurant partnered with other eateries to offer meals on a weekly basis that were free, with donations accepted.

When the latest indoor dining ban came down in October, Kimski, 960 W. 31st St., decided to take the charitable concept full-time, Marszewski said.

“The whole idea is to try to keep hospitality workers employed and feed people in need,” he said.

Community Canteen is open noon-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. Neighbors can stop by to pick up one of the meals, prepared by Kismki and partnering chefs, prepackaged to go.

The meals are free or pay-as-you-can. The money from those able to pay will help fund more meals.

Kimski’s weekly community kitchen effort began in June as a way to give back during an incredibly hard time, particularly for restaurant and other service workers who have seen their jobs disappear during the pandemic.

Also this summer, Maria’s and Kimski converted outdoor space into an expanded patio, allowing for safer on-premise service during the warmer months.

As winter loomed, Maria’s and Kimski announced a new tropical “oasis” concept that would have indoor service, with safety precautions in place.

But the pandemic’s surge in the fall months caused indoor dining to once again be banned. The ban, just as patio season was waning in Chicago, caused some restaurants to attempt to hibernate through the winter.

In response to the new restrictions, Kimski’s partners decided to temporarily shelve that concept and launch the Community Canteen program.

With the new payment model, Marszewski is hoping the business can be of community service while keeping workers employed and Kimski viable through the rest of the pandemic.

“It’s our attempt at finding ways to get through this winter,” he said. “We’re trying to do this because there are no real relief programs [for restaurants] out there.”

The new model is funded by donations and was “seeded” by funds through Marszewski’s other non-profit endeavors, he said.

Co-Prosperity Sphere, the non-profit arts space and community center founded by Marszewski at 3219 S. Morgan St., has seen many of its planned exhibits and events canceled due to the pandemic. One of the few exhibits it has put on this year — a street-facing, Black Lives Matter-themed neon work — was vandalized in August.

Some funds earmarked for the community center helped get the Community Canteen concept launched. But through more donations, grants and partnerships, Marszewski is hoping to expand the free-restaurant model to five other spots on the South and West sides, he said.

Community Canteen is a collaboration between other Chicago chefs and restaurants. Donermen, Parachute and Wherewithall are joining the effort, as are numerous vendors and suppliers, Marszewski said. Marz Community Brewing Co., which Marszewski owns, is also involved in the endeavor.

Marszewski calls the concept “radical hospitality.” It’s an attempt to show how neighbors and businesses can partner together to survive the pandemic while being of true community service.

“We’re doing it because we feel there’s more need, and that it can be done,” he said. “If we can do it, others can do it, too.”

To donate to the Community Canteen, click here.

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