Restaurants Where You Only Pay What You Can Afford? A Visionary Way to Bring Good Food to the Poor Is Taking Off
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1. Make it non-profit – With this set-up, customers get that whatever extra they pay goes back into the community to support those in need. It gives them not only a certain ease, but a sense of participation in the cycle of sharing.
2. Make it real – If the customers know the real value of the items on the menu, they can feel comfortable paying full price or, perhaps, a bit more when they can. Shaich keeps it simple with soups, salads, and sandwiches.
3. Make it human – By putting a welcoming face out front, it's harder for customers to try to score a free meal just to “screw the man,” as Shaich puts it.
4. Make it authentic – Don't just talk the talk of a do-gooder. By also walking the walk, the customers and employees will take it seriously and actively support the venture.
Though it may well be the most successful and prolific, Panera Cares was not even close to being the first pay-what-you-can café on the scene. Shaich cites the SAME Café in Denver, Colorado, as providing some inspiration for him. Like Shaich, Libby and Brad Birky, the founders of SAME – which stands for So All May Eat – got to the idea by way of volunteering at food banks and shelters. Here, patrons can exchange an hour of service for either a meal or a gift certificate. Of course, they can also contribute cash or other in-kind donations to the cause. Libby Birky explained, “No matter their means, we treat people with dignity. They return the favor.” According to Brad, that dignity encompasses the food itself: “We cook simple, high-quality food. We reject the notion that only an elite deserves to eat well.”
At the forefront of the pay-what-you-can action stand Denise Cerreta and her One World Everybody Eats Foundation whose motto is to offer those in need “not a handout, but a hand up.” In 2003, she opened the One World community kitchen/café in Salt Lake City, Utah, from which the broader foundation blossomed. In those footsteps, other community kitchens with a pay-it-forward policy have followed, such as the Karma Kitchen in Berkeley, California, and The Forge in Abilene, Texas.
Flash forward to 2011 and, in addition to having helped SAME and hosting the annual One World Everybody Eats summit in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Cerreta has advised more than a dozen eateries in Alabama, New Jersey, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington state, each with their own unique circumstances. Just as Shaich outlined, the volunteer element is key to the formula because it both provides a way for people with limited funds to contribute and a way for people with limited work experience to gain ground there. Cerreta said, “When a paid staff slot opens, we go straight to our volunteer list and hire from that roster.”
The community restaurant movement got a little extra oomph recently when rock star Jon Bon Jovi opened his Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey. Sure, the suggested donation and volunteer option are both present. But, with a focus on more than just food, Soul Kitchen also emphasizes conversation and community as part of its mission which includes “eliminating hunger, building relationships, celebrating community action and unity, promoting sustainability, and extending encouragement and opportunity to those in need.” Part of the restaurant's manifesto explains the name: “At Soul Kitchen, a place is ready for you if you are hungry, or if you hunger to make a difference in your community. For we believe that a healthy meal can feed the soul.”