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Creating Community Around Food

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The yellow raised gardens contain fruit and vegetables available for public consumption. Photographer: Mike Muench

I’ve always admired those who have a vision and the tenacity to see that vision take shape and become a reality. Nowhere is that more evident than at Convivium Urban Farmstead at 2811 Jackson St. in Dubuque. Convivium perfectly describes the goal of the husband and wife team of Leslie Shalabi and Mike Muench. It is a Latin word meaning feast, party, or banquet. More broadly, it means a gathering for the purpose of celebrating shared life. And that’s exactly what this hard-working, creative, dedicated, and passionate couple are striving to create at Convivium Urban Farmstead.

Leslie was born and raised in Sauk City, WI. With a background in journalism and publishing, she entered the trade magazine publishing field, ultimately focusing on the construction industry. She traveled the world writing about construction equipment before joining SE10, a public relations firm representing multi-national corporations in the construction equipment field. Mike, a native of Ames, IA, was co-founder and partner in Platinum Supplemental Insurance in Dubuque. Both share a commitment to community that is clearly evident in their plans for an education-based nonprofit venture.

“Convivium Urban Farmstead brings people together through food production, preparation, education, and enjoyment,” says Leslie. Her goal is to “create an environment that honors the idea of slowing down and enjoying food, but more importantly, enjoying the connection and fulfillment that comes from gathering around the dinner table.”

The property, located in the North End, includes two greenhouses built in the 1920s, an enclosed building that will house a training kitchen, commercial kitchen, learning center, event space, and coffee shop. An urban farm, educational facility, and event venue, Convivium will unfold in stages. The Coffee House at Convivium and event center opened in early April.

The Coffee House, the little building with the limestone façade and green tile roof, is warm and welcoming. Tuesday through Sunday guests can enjoy drip coffee, press pot coffee, latte, chai, tea, hot chocolate, muffins, quiche, granola, fresh fruit, and soup or salad, depending on the season. It opens onto an outdoor patio with a wood fireplace. Mike and Leslie, sensitive to the historic intrigue of the building, utilized some tin ceiling tiles found in the attic. You’ll see them just where they belong, “back on the ceiling in a sort of floating, drop ceiling arrangement,” said Leslie.

The adjacent event center can accommodate 80 people and boasts a wood-burning fireplace, lovely handmade tables of red elm, hickory, and white oak and comfortable chairs. Access to a large, open kitchen is available as are audiovisual equipment and Wi-Fi. It is a perfect venue for weddings, receptions, showers, and business meetings. Rental rates are $100 per hour Sunday through Thursday and during the day on the weekends, and $200 per hour on Friday and Saturday evenings. There is ample, free and convenient parking on the street.

Mike and Leslie live next door in the Convivium Farmhouse. The gardens there, along with the gardens all around Convivium, were thoughtfully designed to maximize limited space. At the house, the front bed, side gardens, box gardens, strawberry and rhubarb hedges complement the apple, peach, and cherry trees planted in three larger boxes. It’s safe to say that the entire outdoor space at Convivium is planted in edibles! That’s where A.J. Shultz, farm manager, a native of Maquoketa, IA spends most of his time. He has been part of the organic agricultural world most of his adult life.

As community-minded residents, Mike and Leslie have quite literally invited the neighbors to enjoy the fruits of their labor. All the fruits and vegetables grown in the yellow-sided raised gardens that dot the surrounding yards are available for public consumption. More than one neighbor has invited Mike, Leslie, and A. J. to use their back and/or side yards to expand their production space. Several participants in the teen empowerment “Future Talk” program, sponsored by Dubuque’s Multicultural Family Center, will return again this summer to develop their skills in urban farming.

In addition to the Coffee House and Farmhouse Gardens, there are also plans to offer cooking classes in the training kitchen. In the meantime, Convivium is partnering with Northeast Iowa Community College to provide training kitchen space for their Culinary Foundations certificate program. The program focuses on food management, equipment use and safety, terminology and techniques, kitchen chemistry, and customer service. Bailey Kloft, career development and business partnership lead, reports that, “NICC brings the educational development piece and the Convivium offers hands-on learning in their state of the art training kitchen. The end goal is to place our students in the community to fill our workforce needs.”

An incubator kitchen is also on the drawing board. Dedicated to providing space for entrepreneurs seeking resources, support, and technical assistance, the incubator kitchen will be fully-equipped with professional-grade equipment. It provides an efficient environment that allows bakers and cooks to produce their own products in a licensed commercial kitchen. So, if you’re looking to mass-produce your favorite cakes or cookies, here’s an opportunity to do just that.

Located just behind the event center is a footprint for a commercial kitchen and learning center. The learning center will offer courses in gardening and woodworking. According to Leslie, “It will be another way to connect with the community.” Both the commercial kitchen and the learning center are scheduled to open in the fall.

And if that’s not enough, Mike and Leslie have plans to develop both hydroponic and aquaponic systems of growing plants. Very simply, hydroponics is the process of growing plants without soil. They grow in liquid with added nutrients. Aquaponics is a system that adds fish or other aquatic animals to supply nutrients for plant growth via the waste they produce. Neighbors Sean and Korrin Schriver will take the lead in this endeavor with Leslie and Mike funding capital equipment and Sean and Korrin sharing the technical expertise.

Another win-win situation brought to the community by Leslie and Mike!

And finally, in the next 18-24 months, nearly 2,000-square feet of indoor space will be transformed into an orchard or conservatory. The plan is to include citrus and other trees unusual to the area that will do well in a heated, conditioned environment.

Leslie acknowledged that her head is sometimes spinning with all that has been done and still needs doing. But with plans to accomplish even more, she reports, “We need something this big to keep us challenged.” A grateful community stands in awe of what they’ve accomplished thus far!

The Coffee House at Convivium is open from 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.

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