When you get the check at the end of a meal at the new EAT Café in West Philadelphia, you’ll have four choices. You can pay the set price—around $15 for a three-course meal—give an extra donation, pay whatever you can afford, or pay nothing at all.
EAT, which stands for “Everyone At the Table,” is meant to give people in the neighborhood a chance to have a full-service, sit-down dinner, whether or not they can pay the bill.
“It offers the community an opportunity to have quality and nutritious food where people don’t have many food choices outside of a bodega or a fast food restaurant,” says general manager Donnell Jones-Craven. “We’re looking to really engage the community in conversation and fellowship as well as an environment where people feel respected and have dignity.”
The cafe, which will open in October in a converted row house, will operate as a nonprofit and take outside donations. But it aims to become financially self-sustaining in three years or less. “Our goal is that roughly 80% of our customer base will pay the suggested price or more,” says Jones-Craven.
The cafe will also accept donations from some of its vendors for food that might otherwise be wasted, such as bruised produce and day-old baguettes. Local community gardens will also donate extra produce. “It gives us a unique opportunity to be creative with our menu, because our menu’s going to change daily,” he says. Around half of the ingredients will likely be purchased.
There are already soup kitchens in the area, where more than half of residents live below the poverty line. But current food pantries often struggle to keep supplies in stock, and the new model–which helps sustain itself by selling meals to students or others in the area who can afford it–may have advantages.
It may also help non-paying customers emotionally. “I think the human interaction can help,” says Jones-Craven, who envisions a Cheers-like atmosphere where servers will start to know diners by name. Everyone will be treated in exactly the same way, and the server won’t know until taking the check to the cash register whether someone paid or not. Jones-Craven thinks that giving patrons the opportunity to pay something–even if it’s just $5–can also provide a sense of dignity compared to a hand-out.
“Not to knock a soup kitchen–a soup kitchen does a lot, and I’ve worked in soup kitchens,” he says. “But my hope is that we will be just as valuable, and perhaps some of our modeling could change some soup kitchens to a pay-what-you-can, suggested price kind of thing.”
The cafe will be the first pay-what-you-can restaurant in Philadelphia, but others exist elsewhere. Panera, for example, operates a nonprofit version of its cafe in St. Louis, Boston, and Dearborn, Michigan. The model works; Panera estimates that 60% of customers pay the suggested price, up to 20% pay more, and 20% leave less or nothing.
EAT Cafe, a collaboration between Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, Center for Hospitality and Sports Management, and the Vetri Community Partnership, will also collect data on sales. Researchers from the university will have access to that data and the opportunity to study the cafe’s impact.
“It’s going to be unique see how the cafe can have a direct impact in the community of changing the quality of food and nutrition,” says Jones-Craven. “Especially in an underserved community.”
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