Foodie Underground: Eat What You Want, Pay What You Can

ColumnEven if you can’t pay, you still deserve access to good food.

When you go to a museum and there’s a donation box, but no set entrance fee, how much do you put in? Don’t worry, I won’t force you to answer that question publicly – personally it depends on my mood – but the “pay what you can afford” model is an interesting one.

Built on human faith – one can hope that most people are good hearted enough not to totally take advantage of the system – the concept is now moving beyond cultural institutions. Enter, pay-what-you-can restaurants. With the same idea as donation only museums, pay-what-you-can restaurants are exactly that: order a meal and then decide how much you think it’s worth, or give what you can afford.

Earlier this month Jon Bon Jovi and his charity organization JBJ Soul Foundation opened Soul Kitchen, a pay-what-you-can restaurant in New Jersey. The focus is put on healthy and nutritious food, think beet salad and three bean veggie chili. Can’t throw down cash for a meal? You can volunteer in the kitchen. For Bon Jovi, it’s all about changing our perspective. In an interview with Grub Street New York, Bon Jovi said:

Let me change your mind, because you’re imagining a tray service type of soup kitchen and it’s the opposite. Picture the coolest brasserie in your hometown, that’s what this is. It’s the hottest-looking restaurant in this town. We have to get rid of a few stigmas attached to the word volunteering and making a difference.

Bon Jovi’s restaurant is not the first of its kind, and was in fact inspired by Denver’s So All May Eat (SAME). SAME sticks to a strict policy of no set menu and no set prices, and encourages diners who can’t pay to do an hour of service in exchange for their meal. Because they believe in the idea that everyone should have access to healthy food, the owners Brad and Libby Birky are committed to fresh and organic ingredients whenever possible. White Bean Soup with Kale and Chorizo and Apple & Sunflower Seed Salad are some of the items that currently grace the menu.

Cafe 180 in nearby Englewood, Colorado is built on the same ethos, and gets a lot of their produce donated by local Colorado farms. Make your way to the other side of the world and you’ll find MaD Eatery in Siam Reap, Cambodia, where you pay what you want and 100% of the proceeds go to supporting local NGO MaD Cambodia, who works on community development and children’s welfare issues. And Australia has Lentil As Anything, which not only has their pay-what-you-can restaurants, but also a coffee table book celebrating their community.

But do people pay? Over a year ago, chain operation Panera Bread Co. and its Panera Bread Foundation opened the first Panera Cares pay what you want restaurant, and since then they have found that about 80 percent of their clientele pay the suggested amount or more. Their first non-profit concept bakery in Clayton, Missouri was actually so successful that they have since opened community cafes in Dearborn, Michigan and Portland, Oregon.

“The vision for the Panera Cares cafe was to use Panera’s unique restaurant skills to address real societal needs and make a direct impact in communities,” said Ron Shaich, Panera Bread’s co-founder and Executive Chairman. “Thus, the Foundation developed these community cafes to make a difference by addressing the food insecurity issues that affect millions of Americans.”

Shaich makes a good point: everyone should have access to food, and restaurants have the potential to creatively deal with this pressing issue. In fact 15% of U.S. households are faced with food insecurity, and ultimately, this is what these efforts are all about. But beyond supporting local communities, these restaurants are also changing how we think about food as a whole.

The foodie movement has unfortunately been hung up on deluxe renditions of goat cheese, infusions of unheard of herbs and the magic behind molecular gastronomy, but in the path to food greatness, many of these efforts have left the rest of us on the sidelines.

Eating good food shouldn’t be a luxury. We all have the right to have access to local, fresh ingredients, and hopefully pay-what-you-can restaurants can pave the way to a more equitable food future.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Image: Soul Kitchen, e pants

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