This Woman Wants to Open Pay-What-You-Want Restaurants Across America

"Our goal is to build community through healthy food and fellowship, rather than turn out a profit."

Dec 11 2016, 7:00pm

Philadelphia restaurant Everyone At The Table (EAT) has a novel concept: pay what you want for a meal, and no one is turned away. The nonprofit, community-driven cafe in western Philadelphia is hoping to give people from low-income areas a place to sit down and have a delicious, healthy meal.

The brainchild of Mariana Chilton, a professor at Drexel University's school of public health, and director of the Center for Hunger-Free communities, EAT was inspired by similar concepts such as SAME Cafe in Colorado and JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey, Chilton told NPR. Although EAT only opened it's doors in October, business seems to be booming. It's rotating menu of sumptuous, unfussy dishes has clearly hit the right note with its clientele.

This week's offerings include chicken alfredo with broccoli; pan-seared mediterranean fish with olives, lemon, and tomato, served with herbed pasta; and sweet potato bread pudding. The man behind the menu is executive chef Donnell Craven-Jones, who recently moved to the city from Atlanta. MUNCHIES recently spoke to Mariana Chilton about launching EAT, its struggles, and where a radical idea like this can go from here.

READ MORE: This Restaurant Lets You Pay What You Want

MUNCHIES: How would you describe EAT's culinary background and style of food? Mariana Chilton: Healthy soul food with a touch of California freshness—where meat is pushed to the side of the plate, and veggies and whole grains take center stage

Is this project sustainable in the long run? Yes—we know the community is deeply invested in this project, through our community advisory board and our community outreach; everyone wants to see it succeed. People are volunteering, supporting, and joining us to dine. We expect this café to be here for a long time, and we expect to be able to build even more café's just like it around the city, and in other cities around the country.

Do you think a pay-what-you-want model of restaurant service can fight against food "swamps"? Our goal is not to fight food swamps but rather to invite people into a beautiful space with delicious food cooked with care for our community. We hope more businesses will follow suit by providing delicious healthy meals in a sit-down kind of way that communicates that we care for each other, that we rely on each other. Our goal is to build community through healthy food and fellowship, rather than turn out a profit.

Are customers typically paying the recommended amount? Yes—on average, customers are paying almost the same price as the suggested price. We have about 40 percent of people who are paying less, and the rest are paying the recommended amount or are paying more to invest in someone else's meal. It's a great place to pay it forward.

READ MORE: You Pay for Time, Not Coffee, at This 'Anti-Cafe'

You've been open since October—how has business been? Business is going so well! We see on average about 70 people a night—we can manage double that number. Soon it looks like we'll need to expand our hours to keep up with the demand. We've had to order more tables and chairs to be able to seat people faster.

Can this model be reproduced to bring healthy, sit-down eating to other areas of the country? Yes—we are actively sharing our model with many other interested groups. Currently there are about 50 community café's in the US—each one with unique model. Ours is one of the few that is a full-service restaurant. As we work out the kinks, we expect to share this model with communities around the country.

What's been the most challenging aspect of the business so far? It's been most challenging to get business investors up front. Now that we are open, we know that people can see that this is a beautiful, viable option that brings joy and good food to our community. Our challenges are still financial, as we need more vendors to join in with donations and at-cost contributions. Contributing to the café is a great way to contribute to our communities.

Despite having just opened up, where do you see EAT going from here? We see the café expanding its hours to six days a week, to be able to serve lunch and Sunday brunch. From there, we expect to be drawing in dollars not only to re-invest into our workers, and into training people in culinary skills, but we expect to be starting a food truck, and other EAT cafes across the country. Ours is a new model—a very liberating model—for everyone to be able to join in at the table.