Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
And food waste, too.
When diners push back from the table after eating dinner at EAT Café, a 30-seat establishment opening next month in a renovated row house in West Philadelphia, they’ll have a few options for settling the check.
A three-course meal at the café will go for around $15*—but that price is just a suggestion. The bill will clarify that patrons are welcome to pay less, more, or nothing at all. Coupled with corporate sponsors and grants, diners who tack some more on to the recommended amount will help shoulder the costs for patrons who pay less.
The pay-what-you-wish spot is making strides towards closing the nutrition gap in an area where healthy options are often hard to come by. The nonprofit effort—a collaboration between the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the Vetri Community Partnership, and Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sports Management—aims to alleviate food insecurity in the city, where nearly a quarter of residents lack reliable access to enough healthy food. Low-income areas are especially vulnerable to food insecurity; the café is situated in a zip code in which 53 percent of residents live below the poverty line.
Existing safety nets such as soup kitchens and food pantries struggle to meet the considerable need: nearly 90 percent of the city’s food pantries reported empty shelves at least once throughout 2015. The restaurant will serve nourishing, made-from-scratch meals on a block of Lancaster Avenue the Philadelphia Inquirer described as dotted with few dining options beyond a “run-down pizza shop [and] a bulletproof Chinese take-out joint.”
The amount that a patron chooses to pay will remain private between the diner and the server, in an effort to reduce the chance of someone feeling publically shamed. A sense of dignity and respect is paramount to creating “a warm, welcoming, safe environment for our customers,” says the general manager, Donnell Jones-Craven.
Jones-Craven hopes the café will serve as a convener and an equalizer, a conduit for conversation among the college students, long-time residents, and people who live in the homeless shelters or transitional housing facilities nearby. The project’s architects brought locals’ input to bear on the café’s structure and offerings. Residents expressed a desire for healthy, family-friendly meals in an environment that stayed open late and offered a platform for community engagement. The restaurant will serve about 130 meals each night. Patrons can spill out into the backyard patio space, or congregate around the elevated stage near the bay windows up front. Work by local artists will hang on the walls.
The café will rescue and repurpose surplus ingredients that could otherwise end up as food waste. Giant Food, a grocery chain, will contribute slightly bruised produce; the Metropolitan Bakery will provide day-of and day-old baguettes; the local anti-hunger organization Philabundance will donate fresh goods that they’re unable to distribute.
Since the specific contents of a donation are unlikely to be hammered out in advance, Jones-Craven has crafted dozens of menus. He’ll rotate through them based on what comes in, meaning that the cooks will have to be flexible and dynamic, adopting the mentality of, “sure, bring it on,” Jones-Craven says. A crate of tomatillos and cilantro, for instance, could be folded into a dinner inspired by the flavors of Mexican cuisine. Other menus are inflected with elements of soul food and Indian and Caribbean dishes, a nod to the neighborhood’s diversity. Jones-Craven says he’ll take to Twitter to advertise the upcoming meals. “Hey everyone, we got 5 cases of yams. Look out!”
Though the by-donation model is unique in Philadelphia, the café is hitching on to a larger trend of sliding-scale dining establishments that take aim at hunger. The Destiny Community Café in Charleston opened in 2015, backed by funding from One World Everybody Eats, a nonprofit that supports by-donation eateries. “A lot of people [in this neighborhood] are on fixed incomes and everything they get is going to keep the roof over their head,” the café’s founder, RaGina Saunders, told the Charleston City Paper. “There's nothing left in the refrigerator." At SAME Café in Denver, diners can donate their time in place of money, pitching in to keep the operation running. My colleague Natalie Delgadillo previously reported that Everytable, a growing fast-chain in L.A., sells the same meal at different price points across its outposts. A bowl of yucatan chili goes for $4 at the South L.A. location; it will ring up at double that price when the restaurant opens in a tonier downtown neighborhood this fall. The more expensive bills pay it forward so that prices can be lower elsewhere.
When EAT Café opens its doors to the community, Jones-Craven hopes that everyone will feel comfortable at the table.
CORRECTION: Meals will go for a suggested price of about $15, not $12.