Contributing columnist

Seldom do you visit a restaurant where you feel you're helping someone while getting a good meal at a fair price.

You will at Covenant Coffee, located in a former bank building on North Chester in the 'Dale. In addition to roasting its own coffee on the premises and offering sandwiches, salads, paninis and breakfast items, Covenant hires former foster children as employees. They provide hope and love to abused and neglected children in an attempt to fulfill a biblical mandate of ministering to the fatherless in their time of need. Mission work, in the best possible sense.

What you'll find is employees who have a humble, earnest spirit and a willingness to serve that really makes it a special dining experience. When we went for an early lunch visit, the woman manning the roaster spent a lot of time spelling out the intricacies of Covenant's roasting experience and highlighted the different coffee makers they sell (cones as well as more elaborate creations that go for as much as $140). It was impossible to resist picking up a pound of the coffee ($14) to take home.

The coffee and sandwiches are satisfying on their own, to the point that it doesn't feel like an act of charity to eat there.

I ordered a quite satisfying latte ($3.25) and one of the five paninis on the menu, something called The Goods ($7). Excellent name. It featured roast beef, purple onions, field greens, a thick slice of real cheddar cheese and a horseradish mayo. My companion's selection was even better: the pesto choked turkey ($7), with provolone cheese, tomato, artichoke hearts, pesto, spinach and sliced turkey breast. The artichokes and the pesto were a positively inspired choice.

Breakfast features a conventional breakfast sandwich, oatmeal and a wide assortment of coffee drinks as well as Otis Spunkmeyer cookies, scones, bagels and even Pop Tarts (two for $1). But heck I'd rather begin the day with either of those sandwiches and a nice cup of coffee. You make your own rules for breakfast, and protein and carbs with caffeine will get most of us going.

But if pressed for time, a warning: You'll be fighting the relaxing atmosphere that just invites you to hang out and enjoy the morning. My companion noted the '60s-style couches and chairs would be difficult to get out of even with a java jolt. My favorite decoration is one of those retro-themed signs that says, Drink Coffee! Do stupid things faster with more energy. (Guilty as charged.)

If you forgot to bring your own reading materials, there are books all around as well as games. Seating includes the patio out front and five stools near the roaster if you'd rather pick up some tips on how to improve your home-brewed coffee.

The great thing to me is that spending money here doesn't seem like an act of charity. It is a satisfying experience even if you don't read all the helpful materials set out explaining Covenant's worthy goals or ignore the motto: roasting coffee "on purpose for a purpose."

The operation also delivers coffee to homes or businesses (many local restaurants are using the product now). The beans come from all over the world. We picked up the Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a medium roast with a finish compared to caramel corn.

Manager Randy Martin said the place has been open two months now, and has used 25 former foster youths as employees.

"This is not an end goal for them," he said. "We want them to get a job and life skills, maybe move on. We've been able to hire a couple out to others."

Martin noted that though various local churches have helped support the project with volunteers, they're not affiliated with any particular denomination.

"This is just one part of our work," he added. "We've got nine other projects with 18- to 25-year-olds, trying to give them the support they might not have gotten earlier in life."

In short, one reward for your altruism is good food and drink. You can't beat that.