Eat what we have and pay what you like!!

There has always been a dormant wish in my mind – to start a restaurant, but the ‘missus’ does not agree that it a good idea. Even though I tried explaining about the subtle differences between our bus stop ‘chayakada’ (tea shop) and what was in my mind….I tell her that she should view me like Bachan saab in “Cheeni Kum’ and not like the pot bellied guy at Ananda Bhawan…but she just grunts ‘Hooo hrrm’…Apparently there is a big difference, not just in height & pony tail…I guess it was not entirely appropriate to compare myself with Bachan saab!!!

My idea had been to serve Desi, authentic South Indian fare, especially Malabari & Palakkadan dishes to the unsuspecting desi’s and non desi’s out here… I have not come across any such place in the USA, so far…but, well the idea is still in deep freeze and not expected to thaw out, ever. So I try out my hand at cooking during week ends, seriously enjoying the process…especially with a CD of old (sometimes ancient) Malayalam or Hindi songs playing in the background. Many a masterpiece (so I believe) is thus served to other family members and select friends, though these experiments do flop miserably at rare occasions…Sometimes I wonder if Mehaboob or Mukesh ever imagined that a fine Chettinad chicken curry or the Veeraswami special egg curry could be engineered in an American kitchen with their voices prompting the cook..

So when I came across this story in the ‘American Way’ (American Airlines in-flight magazine) a couple of months ago, I was pleasantly surprised, though it was nowhere close to my business model. Let me try & tell you about what I read, since I do not have a link to connect to it and the article is not available online. Titled ‘Will work for food’ by Kevin Raub, this is a great article about a new concept in running restaurants where there are no menu’s and no price lists. I found a lot written up about the café, though.

Walk or drive around California and you will come across many a homeless man with a placard round their necks stating ‘will work for food’. Well, the concept I am talking about is not typically for the homeless, these hotels are loosely termed Robin Hood restaurants and cover outfits such as the One world café in Salt Lake and the SAME in Denver, Terra Bite (founded by a Google developer Ervin P)

The SAME café – Denver

Featured in Time magazine, Owners Brad and Libby Birky started SAME Cafe (So All May Eat) with a simple philosophy: Everyone ought to be able to eat well and affordably in their neighborhood. With that in mind, they decided not to demand money from anyone who comes to eat at their small cafe -- which features an ever-changing menu of healthy pizzas, salads, soups and desserts -- but simply to put a box by the door for donations. The way it's supposed to work, a diner comes in, has lunch (or an early dinner on the weekends), then pays whatever he's able or whatever he thinks the meal is worth. Surprisingly, the system has actually worked, with the Birkys doing a good business even as they do good.

Peta Owens writing for
Time states - Customers who have no money are encouraged to exchange an hour of service — sweep, wash the dishes, weed the organic garden — for a meal. Likewise, guests who have money are encouraged to leave a little extra to offset the meals of those who have less to give. The cafés' business models have won fans among the city's well-to-do residents, many of whom regularly dine there. At One World, patrons have given Cerreta a car, bought new dishes, arranged to professionally clean her carpets, supplied new tile for the restaurant bathrooms, and donated property for an organic garden and funded a new irrigation system for it. Last week, a gentleman left a $50 bill next to an empty bowl of soup at SAME. Since opening, one man has regularly come in and left money on the counter without eating, stating "I was blessed today so I though I'd pass it on." He's homeless.

Kevin outlines the Five steps – Help yourselves to a drink, pick up your silverware, plate, napkin & mug. Select your meal from the daily menu, tell the server what you want and how much. Pay either a donation (what you feel is appropriate for the meal) or exchange one hour of service for one meal – e.g. washing utensils.

Believe it or not, the business that the Birky’s started was conceived while they were flying American airlines and the ideas were jotted on a napkin…not only does it sound philanthropic; it is not a loss maker (BTW it is a no profit outfit) and hires no staff other than the two founders. It caters to about 200 customers a week where 20% work for their meal, the rest pay what they think they should. So what do patrons end up paying for a meal? About $8 per head on average, this is what they would have paid in average at a neighborhood eatery!!

James, a part-time math teacher, is out of cash today. He carries his empty bowl to the kitchen, pulls on rubber gloves, and starts washing. In the back of the restaurant, Will Murray, 52, is wondering how much to drop in the donations box after a meal of soup, salad, and pizza. Ten dollars, he decides. On the wall behind him are framed quotations about giving: “A person’s true wealth is the good he or she does in the world,” and “Be the change you want to see.” “Maybe I’ll toss in a few more,” he says.

Terra bite on the other hand, even provides you with free Wifi and a gaming lounge with Xbox and Play station consoles while there!! An article on Terra bite.

Happy eating folks, and hope you will leave a full stomach and a clear conscience - that is the motto!!!


Saju Muthalaly said…
What a great idea. Now you have got to footnote the American Airlines in-flight magazine. Let me know when you get started and as a true desi I'll pop by... and barter as well :0)
Nanditha Prabhu said…
I had read about a similar restaurant called SEVA in India.Didn't know they existed in US.
Leaving with a full stomach and clear conscience seems to be a perfect motto .
BTW , do let me know when you are starting your own..
indianadoc said…
Maddy nice to know that you too share my dream of opening up a true desi restaurant some day....and tell the videshi's what our desi food is truly like....(to erase the shame on Indian food which our 'take away brothers' have successfully managed !)
and thanks for writing such a wonderful article on a very unique restaurant model...It is a model for which you need real good guts ...and a larger heart...brilliant again..
harimohan said…
dear maddy
i too love to cook specially with music in the background though iam not an expert as it is only recently after coming to this desert for the gut that iam attempting that too with a microwave ( all possible in a hotel room for now till i get my apt ) so pl send me all palaghatan recipes you know or put it in a blogwriteup
great idea of a nice hotel in the us
diyadear said…
will post inabt this one later.. but for now heres wat u asked for -
Maddy said…
Saju,Nanditha, Hari - I have no plans to start a hotel, it was only a wish in my mind!!

Indiandoc - I agree with you fully the kind of stuff they dole out in most places is a shame...

Hari - you could visit Indiandoc's blog http://isouthpotpourri.blogspot.comfor all kinds of recipes. It is only a click away!!
Anonymous said…
there is a restaurant in Kaula Lumpur named Annapoorna doing exactly the same concept - though they do it as a trust for a swami back in India.
Maddy said…
thanks for dropping by - we have eaten at annapoorna KL - it was very good actually, there was a chettathi that day serving vellyappam and lots of other stuff of course