The Restaurant That Lets You Pay What You Want

Time magazine is profiling a couple restaurants run by hippies (shhh, we kid, we kid) that let you pay whatever you think the meal is worth. We know we could never go to these restaurants because we would feel extreme guilt and overpay for our food. Actually, that’s sort of the idea.

“Our philosophy is that everyone, regardless of economic status, deserves the chance to eat healthy, organic food while being treated with dignity,” explains Brad Birky, who opened SAME with his wife, Libby, in October. Customers who have no money are encouraged to exchange an hour of service — sweep, wash the dishes, weed the organic garden — for a meal.”

Gosh, that’s swell. No, really. We’re not being sarcastic, damn it! We really think it’s nice.—MEGHANN MARCO

Where “Check Please” is Your Call [Time]

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  1. timmus says:

    These places turn a profit or at least stay out of the red? How is that possible? I agree that many people are good-hearted (and the article cites some noteworthy examples), but in my experience there are a slew of people who will do anything to pay next to nothing.

  2. Musician78 says:

    I was thinking the exact same thing. What is to stop someone from paying 2 bucks for a twenty dollar meal every day?? Or even twice a day…?

  3. The Unicorn says:

    I think something like this is a lot more effective when it’s a small restaurant staffed by the same group of people — so that frequent non-payers can be gently taken aside and deterred from freeloading. If, say, McDonald’s adopted the same policy, it wouldn’t work because the people working the register would have little incentive to ensure people paid and the customer base would be too large to effectively monitor who the non-payers were.

    Who knows how long these places will stay in business, but it’s a truly inspiring idea — I was especially moved by the various material contributions that patrons have made in lieu of funds. One of the sad drawbacks to the more dispersed, capital-dependent culture we live in is that bartering has become almost obsolete, and it’s refreshing to hear of a system in which it can still be practiced.

    Plus, you’d have to be a pretty heartless person to walk away from your empty plate with full pockets while a homeless man came in to leave a donation on the counter.

  4. kerry says:

    This sounds similar to the co-op system a some small grocers use. I belonged to a co-op in college and in exchange for about 8 hours of store labor a month I got a ridiculously deep discount on food, including organic produce and cheese. It was really a total steal. It doesn’t take very much labor to make up the cost of the discount, or in this case the cost of a meal.

  5. LatherRinseRepeat says:

    Yeah, I’m also wondering how they turn a profit or at least break even. Different people have different perception of what prepared food is worth. People that regularly eat at fast food placs would assume that any meal shouldn’t cost more than $5. While people that usually cook for themselves at home, have a general idea that homemade food with fresh ingredients would cost somewhat more.

  6. bourgeoisie says:

    So cool.

    What a fascinating business model.

  7. MeOhMy says:

    It could work… In my college days a group I was in raised money using bake sales. Most clubs had a “pay-per-unit” pricing model, but we found we got better results with a “free will” pricing model. When there’s a fixed price, everyone just pays the fixed price, but when there is no price, the people that paid a lot more than we would have charged outnumbered the people that paid very little or nothing at all.

    I often had conversations with people where, after thoroughly establishing that they could walk away with an entire plate of brownies and no one would hold it against them, they dropped $5 in the can and walked away with a single cookie.

    However, I think that in the long run as word gets out that there is a restaurant that will feed you for free if you have the audacity to take advantage, the number of freeloaders could well break the system beyond repair. I could be wrong. I hope I am.

  8. aestheticity says:

    I think it depends on where you open it. In a major metropolitan area I suspect you’d get nothing BUT freeloaders rolling through every minute of every day. Out on the fringes where you might find a regular clientèle and a lower profile and generally more pleasant consumers, maybe. I still say ultimately that even if it takes 10 years such a business model can’t work. They’ll never take enough money to cover costs.

  9. riggs says:

    Nice idea, but I have to be a little cynical. It’s nice to think that this would work just fine, everyone would pay in, but I foresee some serious freeloadin’. Hats off to these folks for trying, though. Hope it works well for them.

  10. I stopped in at the One World Cafe a few times, the expected fare is about the same as what you would pay at a high end restaraunt. Never ate there so I cant comment on the food, but I can tell you that the cafe has been there for years. I know it has been there maybe at least five years. So they must be doing something right. Most businesses dont make it past the two year mark.

    You would be surprised at how many hippies there are in Utah. The atmosphere at the restaraunt was very laid back, no tension at all. I hope to see more ventures like this in other cities. It is good to have faith in people.

  11. clawster says:

    There’s also a restaurant in Melbourne, Australia that uses a similar pricing model. Lentil as Anything has a ‘pay what you feel the meal was worth’ philosophy (but doesn’t have the ‘contribute an hour of service deal).
    From what I understand, costs are minimal as a lot of the staff there are volunteers.
    The food is legume and vege-based, so their ingredients are rather cheap too.
    And because payment is optional, takings are considered donations, and aren’t taxed by the government (not 100% sure if this last point is true, but I like to think it is).
    They seem to be doing quite well for themselves – they have four stores open around Melbourne so far!

  12. *happy sigh* Ah, flashbacks of Stranger In A Strange Land.

    And yes, according to all available data, it generally works — for small enterprises. In megacorporations, all the “humanity” is removed from the transactions — customers don’t care about the store, the store doesn’t care about the community, etc. But in a small operation, where you can’t escape the real people working behind the counter, and where you really appreciate what you’re getting as a community, people tend to pay enough or more than enough more often than not. The people who pay less are generally people who really have to, and they usually appreciate it so much that they’re willing to do a little work to offset their bill.

    My father’s a professional in a small office in a fairly tight community, and he’s made a name for himself by letting people who need but can’t afford his services pay in barter (stuff or services). He gets screwed out of money a lot less than other people in his profession, and he’s been doing it 20 years. I totally plan to expand on his business model, and I’m SO happy not to be the first!

    -PD

  13. adamondi says:

    No “just kidding” disclaimer necessary, Meghann. These people are total hippies. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. They seem to be providing a good service and are building a community of people who would like to support this method of running a restaurant. More flower power to them.

  14. synergy says:

    I find it interesting that a large chunk of comments seem to be saying that city people are more evil than ones in small towns. Apparently they haven’t been to some of the small towns I have.

  15. ValkRaider says:

    “I think it depends on where you open it. In a major metropolitan area I suspect you’d get nothing BUT freeloaders rolling through every minute of every day. Out on the fringes where you might find a regular clientèle and a lower profile and generally more pleasant consumers, maybe.”

    I was going to say almost the exact opposite… I guess it depends on the metropolitan area… :)

  16. dantsea says:

    synergy: I don’t think it’s necessarily a case of people believing city people are “more evil,” but at least here in Seattle the two downtown restaurants that tried this eventually folded or severely cut back operations. Why? Because they were serving a population of broke, homeless folks who were more than willing to work off their bills. Great for reducing overhead, but not so great for paying the landlord or the Sysco account.

    So I don’t think it’s really a case of city folk being dastardly as it is that such operations will, by virtue of location and operation, have a higher probability of serving people who can’t (not won’t) pay.

  17. Garbo says:

    During the Depression, there was a restaurant in Downtown Los Angeles called Clifton’s Cafeteria with the motto “pay what you wish. People who could afford it paid a little extra and they fed the homeless AND made a profit.

  18. subodhgupta says:

    There is a restaurant in Kuala Lumpur which works on a similar model. It’s called Anna Lakshmi.

    Anna Lakshmi is a charity non profit restaurant – eat as you want and pay as you wish.

    It is situated in the MidValley Megamall (one of KL’s bigest shopping centre) in Bangsar.

  19. HaxRomana says:

    Something like one million percent of restaurants fail in their first year.

    Ok, so that was a bit of hyperbole…but seriously, failure is so common in the restaurant industry that there are entire businesses -successful ones – predicated on buying food prep equipment from dead and dying restaurants and selling it to new restaurants.

    If businesses like these are surviving in such a merciless industry long enough for anyone to take notice, they must be doing something correctly. I think it’s a great idea.