Pay What You Can at a Nonprofit Restaurant

A Place at the Table in Raleigh, N.C., is a restaurant with counter service that offers breakfast and lunch items like biscuits and gravy, quiche, panini, and salads. Menu items range from $5 to $10, and many can be customized for vegetarian, vegan, or gluten-free diets. Though it gives the appearance of a pretty typical café, the diners are participating in the pay-what-you-can nonprofit restaurant model promoted by One World Everybody Eats (OWEE), the Salt Lake City-based foundation that has helped establish dozens of similar businesses across the United States.

We spoke with A Place at the Table Founder and Executive Director Maggie Kane about the restaurant’s mission to make every person feel welcomed with a healthy and affordable meal.

How “Pay What You Can” Works

When dining at A Place at the Table, guests are given several payment options:

  1. Pay only what you can afford, which might be less than the suggested menu price.
  2. Pay the suggested menu price like you would at any other restaurant.
  3. Pay more than the suggested menu price.
  4. Pay enough to cover the cost of someone else’s meal.
  5. Pay by volunteering to work at the restaurant.

“We don’t say you have to volunteer because we think everyone must work for their meal,” Kane says of the option to pay by volunteering. “No, you’re volunteering because you’re part of the community, and that’s your way to give back. You’re building community while volunteering with other volunteers.

The number of volunteer meals available each day are tracked with a meal token system. Meal tokens are sold for $10 and, once purchased, may also be given to someone else, much like a gift card would be, or can be left at the restaurant for others to use as needed. Because each meal token is printed with the restaurant’s logo and address, anyone who receives a meal token will know where to go to enjoy a meal.

Kane says A Place at the Table intends to follow an 80/20 model, “with 80 percent of people paying the suggested price for their meals and 20 percent of people who are volunteering for their meals or paying a little bit less.”

Thanks to a year-long corporate sponsorship by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (BCBSNC), the restaurant will be able to guarantee at least 20 volunteer meals each day. Kane says the BCBSNC sponsorship has also helped others believe in the cause and make donations.

“We’ve been able to generate the revenue we need to every single day by people just dining with us,” explains Kane about the success of the pay-what-you-can model so far, adding that other donations given by patrons help offset food and operational costs. “When people come in, the tip line does not go to tips – the tip line goes to A Place at the Table. You go to any other restaurant and tip, but you could go to A Place at the Table and the tip that you’re going to give anyway [will go] to things that we might need.

Building a Table for the Community

A Place at the Table was in planning for 3 years prior to its January 2018 opening, but Kane first began to think about a nonprofit restaurant after college, while working with people experiencing homelessness.

“We would go and eat in soup kitchens and, for special occasions, I’d take them out to meals, and I realized how valuable that was,” Kane explains. “Restaurants are [special] because they help you build community. They help you build relationships.

Although Kane recognizes how important soup kitchens are for underserved populations, she wanted to go a step further and offer those people the opportunity to enjoy a more typical restaurant experience, one that strengthens relationships and, in turn, the community.

“As I was eating at soup kitchens, I was realizing that [while] it’s a needed nonprofit, there was no dignity in dining,” Kane explains. “You didn’t get to choose what you wanted to eat. They serve their purpose, and it’s not the purpose of having a nice, enjoyable meal with someone, unfortunately.”

When she started researching nonprofit restaurants, Kane discovered F.A.R.M. Café in Boone, N.C., a pay-what-you-can restaurant that works with OWEE. The group does not offer financial assistance, but creates a network of like-minded entrepreneurs who are supported by each other and the OWEE foundation in other ways.

“I learned from them, I volunteered with them, [and] they shared a lot of their paperwork,” Kane says, explaining how the folks at F.A.R.M Café became her mentor. “[One World Everybody Eats provides] a support system because this is not easy. It’s not easy to open a restaurant, and it’s certainly not easy to open a nonprofit. When you’re doing both, it’s extra difficult.

Good Food for the Greater Good

The years-long process of creating A Place at the Table involved assembling a Board of Directors, holding fundraisers, filing for nonprofit status, hosting “Second Saturday brunches” pop-up events at different restaurants in the areas, and building a presence in the community and on social media.

“People were really believing in the concept and they were seeing that the concept worked because they would come out [to pop-up events], eat with us, [and] learn about it,” Kane says. “With that, we were proving that we weren’t just this concept; we could be a product. We could come to life and be a reality in Raleigh, not just [a] once a month [event].”

However, one of the most difficult parts of making the pay-what-you-can restaurant a reality was finding a landlord willing to support A Place at the Table’s mission.

“A lot of landlords turned us down and turned us away because they thought of us as a soup kitchen, which we were not,” Kane explains. “I think a lot of landlords thought we were going to be this place where poor people were going to sleep and loiter and it was going to look bad on our city – which is sad, if you think about it. But Raleigh is changing and doing a lot to push poverty out, unfortunately, to the outskirts of the area, and we knew we needed to not be doing that. We knew we needed to be in an area where there was going to be a mix of people.

After finding the right storefront, it was transformed into A Place at the Table with the help of donated materials and professionals working pro bono. The team also grew to include a small table staff, a number of core volunteers, and a community advisory board that includes people who are or have been affected by poverty or who work directly with people experiencing poverty.

Several members of the nonprofit restaurant’s team brought culinary and hospitality experience to the table, so it’s no surprise they were able to craft an appetizing menu. In fact, Kane believes it’s the good food that brings people back to A Place at the Table.

They’ll come out once for a good cause, but they’ll come out again if the food is good, so that was a big part of it,” Kane says. The menu, complete with flexible options for special diets, was also designed to appeal to as many people as possible. “We wanted people to be able to come and find a meal with us, and come to us because they could find a meal with us. In everything we do, we’re a welcoming place – and that includes the food.”

Do you have questions about the positive impact a pay-what-you-can restaurant could have on your community? Maggie Kane encourages you to email her (maggie@tableraleigh.org) to learn more.

Ariana Keller
Ariana Keller

Ariana Keller was raised on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in south Alabama, where she learned to fish and love football. She moved to Knoxville with her family when she was 12 and later graduated from the University of Tennessee with a degree in English. Passionate about Marvel Comics, Harry Potter, and all things geeky, she spends her free time playing tabletop and video games, collecting beer caps from craft breweries around the country, and celebrating the Cubs' 2016 World Series win. She is an advocate for animal rescue and lives in Knoxville with her husband and their two adopted pets: a hound dog named Beau and a Maine Coon mix named Vesper.

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