The $8.59 Selfless-Service Lab

The pink-stucco and red-tile building, once home to a Red Lobster, blends easily into the urban sprawl of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A truck dealership is on one side, a nail salon across the street. But there's something different going on here at California Fresh Buffet.

It's not just the retirees waiting for the doors to open at 5 p.m. It's not the friendly host, Daniel Lobb this evening, who greets regulars by name. And it's not the food — a well-prepared but standard-issue medley of salads, hot dishes, and desserts — or even the price: All you can stuff in for $8.59.

Here's the thing about California Fresh Buffet (CFB): It's run mostly by volunteers who are there to learn about teamwork, leadership, and customer service. Every day of the year — the place is packed for Christmas dinner — doctors, carpenters, and business execs show up to bus tables, cook pastries, and wash dishes. Even the full-time manager is unpaid.

CFB is a proving ground for "selfless service," as its proponents call it, that has been two decades in the making. In 1986, a group of two dozen people began offering free hospice care, and then respite care for children with disabilities. Its Human Service Alliance (HSA) attracted hundreds of volunteers, leading the founders to spin off the original caregiving service and focus on training. It opened the not-for-profit Center for Purposeful Living, offering a yearlong course in selfless service.

The center, anchored in the belief in people's innate goodness, has a spiritual core — but it's also about personal responsibility and finding solutions instead of placing blame. Room and board is free; students are expected to attend classes and volunteer 40 hours a week. Another HSA spin-off offers a one-day workshop, which has drawn more than 80,000 attendees from companies such as American Express, R.J. Reynolds, and Wachovia Corp.

For all that, "we needed a lab," explains Sanford Danziger, a longtime HSA board member. "It could have been anything, but we decided on a restaurant. We needed the tension a business provides." The demanding, dynamic nature of running a food-service operation tests the center's core principle: remaining positive, productive, and effective all the time, no matter what.

Restaurant volunteers learn, first of all, to accept honest feedback and to "reverse the flow," which means thinking about those you serve rather than about yourself. So when Suzanne Stevens, a buffet regular, asked a volunteer busser not to clear dirty dishes into a tub near her table, he quickly moved. "And he said, 'Thank you for telling me that.' " Stevens recalls.

CFB teaches volunteers to be open to colleagues' suggestions, to look for positive qualities, and to keep the larger purpose of the group in mind. "We try to create that whether bussing or washing pots or working on the grill," says volunteer Todd Thorburg, director of administration for the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest University. "How is what I'm doing right now contributing to everyone else's success?"

Five years into the experiment, CFB keeps humming. Its dining room is jammed every night. The bussers are friendly, and their work is meaningful. And the meatloaf with collard greens is just fine, too.

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