In a world where a bite of fast food is cheaper than fresh fruits and vegetables, processed goods line the walls of food banks and soup kitchen gruel lacks key nutrients, being low-income means running on a toxin-rich diet.
But at the SAME (So All May Eat) Café in Denver, Colo., customers can walk in with empty wallets and leave nourished by healthy, organic food that otherwise would have broken their budgets. Rather than setting prices, the SAME Café invites customers to pay whatever price they think is fair or volunteer in exchange for a meal.
Unlike the soup kitchens where co-founders Brad and Libby Birky used to volunteer, the SAME Café offers customers a wide variety of creative dishes, such as a tuna salad composed of cucumber, bell pepper, corn and black beans, sprinkled with red wine vinegar and olive oil.
“It tastes so much brighter than something that came out of a can, when their only concern is how to make something cheaply rather than making it taste delicious,” Brad says.
At least 10 pay-as-you-can restaurants, including Panera Bread’s St. Louis Bread Co. Cares, are located within the United States. The SAME Café opened in 2006 with help from One World Café founder Denise Cerreta, whose Salt Lake City restaurant has inspired a total of six restaurants nationwide. Community support, including volunteers and generous customers, makes it possible for these restaurants to feed everyone, regardless of financial situation.
In the SAME Café, Brad has witnessed how healthy eating and a friendly atmosphere can raise a person’s spirits. One woman in her late 50s initially cornered herself in the café and snapped at anyone who spoke to her. But after switching from a diet of cereal to SAME Café meals, she found the energy to joke and laugh with the other customers.
“You could definitely tell that the healthy eating had a good effect on her,” Brad says. “It ended the cycle of feeling bad because she was putting bad things into her body.”
Cerreta says she started her pay-as-you-can policy in 2003 after she felt moved by the Holy Spirit to let people decide what they wanted to pay. In mid-May, former Panera CEO Ron Shaich opened St. Louis Bread Co. Cares in Clayton, Mo., with Cerreta’s guidance. If Panera’s experiment succeeds, they plan on opening a chain of pay-as-you-can Panera Cares restaurants.
Such a unique pricing policy has been met with skepticism, as people wonder if a restaurant with no prices can sustain itself in a tough economy. After all, One World ran at a loss of almost $5,000 in 2009 due to the economic downturn, as more customers earned their meals by volunteering or tried the complimentary dish that is free to all.
Restaurant owners say the model is sustainable because customers contribute fairly more often than not. Jean Stockdale from A Better World Café in Highland Park, N.J., estimates the vast majority of customers pay the suggested price and an additional 25 percent go above that. Although cashiers have occasionally needed to encourage customers to give back to the café in exchange for their meals, Stockdale says no one has tried to continuously abuse their generosity since they opened this past October.
“It’s more fun to participate and be part of a team effort,” Stockdale says.
Volunteers who work in the kitchen and garden save restaurants the significant cost of hiring extra employees. The One World Café also invites volunteers to pray or meditate. “You can feel the difference,” Cerreta says. “It’s so legitimate to me.”
Gwen and Sara, Christian women who have been struggling financially, often earn their meals by praying, Cerreta says. They hold hands across a table in the peaceful back room, where photographs of Mother Teresa and the Poor Clare nuns of Perpetual Adoration adorn the mauve-painted walls.
“The last time they were in here praying I had one of my busiest days ever,” Cerreta says. “They were praying so hard I thought the pictures were going to fall off the walls. And we needed it because our numbers have been off due to the economy. They truly helped me.”
In turn, Gwen often expresses her appreciation for being able to eat well. “When she comes in here, she says, ‘Denise, you won’t believe it, I’ve lost X amount of pounds, my cholesterol’s better,’” Cerreta says. “She’s really eating healthy food.”
Cerreta estimates a pay-as-you-can restaurant needs at least $10,000 to start up, depending on the location and how creative it can get with cutting costs. Restaurants can save by getting equipment donated, reducing food waste and buying seasonal produce.
The SAME Café launched with $30,000 the owners loaned themselves, but Birky would have preferred more financial security. “It was down to the wire by the time we opened the doors,” he says. “We didn’t have another month’s rent.” After a year, however, the restaurant earned back the funds it had invested, surprising the owners with its success.
Karma Kitchen co-founder Viral Mehta says pay-as-you-can restaurants naturally attract generous customers. Karma Kitchen, which is open Sundays in Berkeley, Calif., and Washington, D.C., uses a pay-it-forward model, telling guests they owe nothing, since the previous customer paid for their meal. The guest then has the opportunity to pay for the next person. Generosity fuels Karma Kitchen, from an inspired stranger who handed the founders $100 in a parking lot to a United Kingdom woman who sent about 100 handmade dolls for the restaurant to give away.
“When you create that kind of environment, it attracts people who resonate with the same values, increasing the community effect,” Mehta says. “It starts to get some collective momentum.”
Cerreta says churches should think about starting pay-as-you-can restaurants since they already have access to a kitchen and a community of people who care. Although no church has yet to start a pay-as-you-can restaurant, A Better World Café is located within the Reformed Church of Highland Park and run by nonprofits founded by church members.
“Faith drives our daily hopefulness that each day is going to work out,” Stockdale says. “And it does, it works out daily.”