Ever long for a neighborhood diner? The kind of place where cabdrivers, doctors and homemakers all mingle, drawn in by genuinely warm service, deliciously filling food and down-to-earth prices. A place like World Cup Café.

Every morsel you munch — and every gift you buy in the café’s just-expanded Fair Trade Market — helps children, teens, adults and the elderly in need in the community to better opportunities, better jobs and better lives.

It’s a downright delicious concept, as noted on its website: “Mission Waco’s World Cup Café exists to serve the community with good food, quality service and economic development. It is a place of comfort where lower, middle and upper class people can all meet together to eat and feel at ease.”

This retro diner sits on a corner of a neighborhood reclaimed, in large part, by the efforts of Jimmy Dorrell’s Mission Waco crew of devoted volunteers and employees.

“Once upon a time, this was one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Waco,” said Kathy Allison, a sprightly figure in bright handmade beads fresh from the Fair Trade Market that once filled small shelves and now fills the newly renovated back room of World Cup Café.

A multi-decade Mission Waco volunteer, Allison heads the Fair Trade Market with the help of volunteers. “Then as those residents moved away, there were no jobs left here apart from a few small corner markets. The neighborhood became destitute.”

The remnants of those times can still be seen in this community near the intersection of Bosque Boulevard and 18th Street — yet so can the polished storefronts of this café and its attached Jubilee Theatre, the freshly painted signs at the Mediterranean diner across the street and the new golden brick of the nearby Family Health Center.

“The World Cup Café and Fair Trade Market were begun to initiate more economic development in North Waco,” said Dorrell, founder of Mission Waco/Mission World. “After the first 12 years of creating programs and establishing a housing ministry (Waco CDC), we knew that revitalizing the area, now called Near Northside, would require creating an environment that would attract new businesses.

“Several of the neighborhood folks funded a master plan for the area which is still in place. It has been adopted by both the city of Waco and Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce as part of the Imagine Waco strategy. Our hope is to become a destination neighborhood with other ethnic restaurants and a vital arts community and boutique shops.”

Inside World Cup, red, white and silver gleam in the barstools and booths, the walls and fixtures, and in the striking tile mosaic of continents behind the bar. A tiny alcove between the café and theater that used to house a small selection of fair trade jewelry and gifts is now given over to the colorful work of local artists. A spacious new addition to the café has opened beyond the bar, giving ample space for a massive expansion of fair trade items for sale, as well as lots of table space for dining, meeting and parties.

Feel like a coffee? It’s all organic fair trade, and comes in endless varieties from World Cup’s coffee bar: Lattes, cappuccinos, mochas and frappes come whipped up with a tempting flavor array of premium syrups and toppings. Seasonal brews like Pumpkin Spice and Christmas in a Cup are favorites both in the neighborhood and all over Waco — and Allison says that’s key to the concept of World Cup Café.

“World Cup is what it was designed to be: An eclectic meeting place where people from this neighborhood and from all over Waco come to eat and to shop,” she said. “Business people, Baylor students, local folks, anyone can sit down and be eating next to someone from a whole different walk of life, but everyone’s doing the same thing — relaxing and enjoying some good food.”

Good food? Rajka Jobe heads a kitchen that starts each day before dawn with breakfast, where platters heaped with eggs, hashbrowns and thickly cut toast start at under $4. Biscuits and gravy, pancakes, French toast and chicken fried steak add heft to your side of eggs, or you can build an omelet your own way, starting with an egg or egg whites-only base. Add a fresh berry smoothie from the coffee bar to tuck in an additional food group.

Then you’ve got your lunch specials for less than $7, with names like Soul Food Tuesday, Chicken Fried Steak Wednesday and All-You-Can-Eat-Catfish Friday.

“Get here early for the catfish,” Allison notes, smiling, “because we always run out. And we have our standard specials, but we’re always adding new things, too.”

Warm lentil wraps and 8-ounce handmade burgers served on artisan buns add weight and variety to menu offerings, as do sides like sweet potato fries and tropical fruit. A banana pudding rightly voted best in Waco can’t be missed, but tempting fruit cobblers are always baking, too. All fruits, veggies and meats are locally sourced, Allison said.

Shannon Williams, longtime Mission Waco employee whose various hats include the café as well as work with its online presence and with children, says World Cup employees don’t let stress get the best of them.

“We’re professional here always, but our customers know that we like to have a good time. We keep the atmosphere very fun and laid-back. We build relationships with people here, so it’s not unusual to find some of our regular customers jumping in to help if we’re short-handed, or offering advice on dishes they think we should try.”

Employees are a mix of local residents, college kids and Mission Waco “Mpowerment” job training candidates.

“Job training runs about six weeks,” Williams said, “with about three weeks of classes and three weeks partnered with employers in the community, including the café. Here, people gain culinary skills, service and dishwashing experience; these are marketable skills, something tangible for someone formerly homeless.

“Hands-on compassion is one of our Mission Waco mottos,” she continued, animated by a passion for the underlying purpose of Mission Waco’s two dozen-plus methods of community outreach that include job training, drug rehabilitation, social and legal services, health clinics, Mission Waco Youth and Children, Jubilee Theatre and Church Under the Bridge. “When I went to seminary, it was to share God’s love in a relational way. That’s what this is.”

It is that and more, Dorrell said.

“The World Cup Café was also to engage the larger Waco community, which left the area many years ago when the neighborhood struggled,” he said. “Today, the café is filled with folks from all over Waco. And the connection of the World Cup to the Jubilee Theatre next door has brought several complementary activities such as the recent Jubilee Music Festival, upcoming January Cultural Foods and Dances Night, an exciting Valentine’s night with prime rib and a program and several community theater nights which often include a meal at the café.”

Allison acknowledged that, despite dedicated volunteers and rigorous financial discipline, it wasn’t easy getting World Cup on its feet back in 2006.

“Quite frankly, the first two or three years, we really struggled,” she said. “Hey, the restaurant business is tough, it doesn’t matter who you are. Luckily, the people that are a part of this place come from all walks of life, but they are all here because they’ve bought into this concept. They are dedicated.”

That holds true for the Fair Trade Market.

“When you volunteer with Mission Waco, they ask you to find an area to make your own,” Allison said of how she came to head World Cup Café’s beautifully expanded Fair Trade Market. “Emilie and Wes Cunningham once had some fair trade here, before Emily had her children. World Cup opened in January 2006, and by that November, me and my friends Laura Mitchell and Sharon Wolf started selling fair trade items out on the sidewalk.”

Local songwriter and singer Wes Cunningham starred in the movie “Sironia,” with many of its scenes filmed in Waco and several inside World Cup Café.

The new market is filled with a colorful array of items, set off by large framed prints by local artists. Paper earrings from the Philippines. Batik purses and baby shoes from Ghana. Stylish and indestructible shopping bags and sparkly clutches fashioned from intricately woven plastic bags or shredded VHS tape. Delicate silver and gold slippers from Morocco. Pottery, tapestries, necklaces, purses, scarves, baskets, note cards, too — all set against warm leaf-brown walls and colorful floor tiling, and anchored by slim iron tables for overflow dining from the café.

“In non-fair-trade buying, you have an average of 14 middlemen between the person who makes an item and you as you’re buying that item,” Williams added. “With fair trade, it’s more like three or four, and you know the craftspeople are getting a fair wage for their work. Kathy helped us become fair trade certified, and she helps our suppliers in markets all over the world set up guidelines so they can facilitate more orders from other places in the States. We’re the only fair trade-certified location in Waco, but other shops here like Roots and even Target and Wal-Mart do sell some fair trade items, and we refer people to them a lot.”

Allison noted that the market also features local artists, “which isn’t technically fair trade, but which meets many of the fair trade guidelines, particularly those that relate to eliminating middle people taking a cut out of the profits — which may be necessary in giant operations, but that’s not what fair trade is about.”

Williams explained the fair trade concept further.

“That’s when you get scenarios like the farmer who grew the coffee getting maybe 3 cents out of your $3 dollar latte,” she said. “Our coffee at World Cup Café and that we sell here in the Fair Trade Market is organic fair trade, so for the same price, 10 cents goes to the farmer instead. It’s roasted by a guy in Marfa near Big Bend who gets his coffee from fair trade growers all over the world. Again, it’s maybe three to four steps from farmer to customer.”

The small but steady influx of cash from the market goes back into Mission Waco’s community and global outreach efforts. With the recent expansion of the shop and café, that influx is likely to grow.

“Fair trade empowers the world’s poor,” Allison said, “people who often have no voice, and sometimes don’t even know they have the right to ask for a decent living wage or health care. Now Mission Waco/Mission World has outreach in Haiti, Mexico and India, so fair trade is a good fit with what we’re doing locally and globally, and helps with real dollars both locally and globally.”

Though prices for fair trade items may be higher than their mass-produced counterparts, Allison defends the incomparably higher quality of the craftsman-produced fair trade product, and also says she works to keep items of all price ranges in the store.

“We want anyone to be able to walk in and buy something, even for 50 cents,” she said “Children especially love to buy something, anything, and they can afford a bracelet or a small toy. Believe it or not, poor people are often the most receptive to buying fair trade, because they understand what it means to get a fair wage for your work.”

Everyone at the World Cup Café and Mission Waco gets involved, she said, even the waitstaff and cooks.

“Look, I would never ask anyone to try to buy everything they need fair trade; even I don’t do that,” she said. “I shop at the mall, too. But maybe just try making a small commitment: to look for fair trade gifts, or to maybe buy your coffee or chocolate fair trade.”

Chocolate in particular is an industry where children are forced to work, Allison said. “Children my own grandchildren’s age are climbing trees seven days a week to harvest in exchange for nothing more than a place to sleep and a little food,” she said.

“Fair trade is just a small way of re-educating the 20 percent of the world that has 80 percent of the money, to maybe say, I don’t need quite as much, and maybe I need better quality, and maybe even to know who made my stuff. It can begin with just a small commitment.”

The market’s expansion is, again, down to Mission Waco founder Dorrell. “One day in September, Jimmy woke up from a dream and said, ‘it’s time,’ ” Williams said, laughing.

“He wanted to open the expanded store in mid-October,” Allison said in mock exasperation. “I reminded him that we were leaving for Haiti in just two weeks ... but it all happened within a month’s time, and by the time we got back, volunteers had been working and scrubbing and painting like crazy, and it was done. Now customers can eat back here, and we love to have parties and gatherings because that’s educating, spreading the word about what we do. There’s even a stage! My Bible study group meets here and it turns into an all-afternoon knitting marathon.”

Mission Waco/Mission World

“First and foremost, we’re doing this for God,” Williams said. “Half the Mission Waco staff is business-minded, and half of us are the relationship people. You need all of that; you’ve got to build on people’s gifts.

“One of Jimmy’s dreams for years was to transform this neighborhood. Long-term businesses that have stayed here like North Waco Tropical Fish and D’s Mediterranean Grill have been very key in keeping people coming here all these years because they are very unique businesses. Now the community development center is helping finance new houses in this area, people of mixed incomes intentionally moving in here to help with the transformation.”

World Cup Café and Fair Trade Market

1331 N. 15th St. (corner of 15th and Colcord Avenue near Bosque Boulevard)

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254-757-1748

Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-2 p.m.

Free WiFi

Parties and meetings of 10 or more welcome (48 hours’ notice requested)

Shop Fair Trade plus coffee bar and desserts

Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-5 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m.-5 p.m.

Mission Waco has more than two dozen empowerment programs to help children, teenagers and adults find their way through difficult issues. In addition, Mission Waco offers “The Other Side of Waco” tours, poverty simulation, internships, work group service trips and mission exposure trips to Haiti, India and Mexico City.

It depends on volunteers and donations from the community. For more information, call 753-4900 or visit missionwaco.org.