Karma in the Kitchen
Every meal is a gift at these pay-it-forward restaurants.
Imagine you’re at a restaurant and have just eaten an amazing eggplant and potato curry. Then the check arrives with the price: $0. A card tucked inside explains: In the spirit of generosity, someone who came before you made a gift of this meal. We hope you will continue the circle of giving in your own way!
In Berkeley, California, thousands have partaken in this puzzling dining experience at Karma Kitchen, a restaurant that offers its meals for free with the hope that you’ll “pay it forward” by footing the bill for the next guest’s meal. It’s one of a growing number of restaurants that have adopted a pay-what-you-can or other alternative pricing structure in an effort to build a different kind of economy: one that runs on karma rather than cold, hard cash.
This practice, known as a “gift economy,” was the norm in ancient tribal cultures. But would it work in our modern-day capitalist society? Birju Pandya, one of Karma Kitchen’s five founders, was skeptical. “Most people said it wouldn’t work. I said it won’t work,” the MBA graduate admits. Yet all too soon, the founders received their first gift: their friend Rajen Thapa, owner of the 48-seat vegetarian restaurant Taste of the Himalayas, donated his place and cooking staff once a week for Sunday brunch. From there, the founders gathered 15 volunteers to wait tables, wash dishes, and explain their philosophy to customers.
When the homeless started showing up, asking about “free food,” they served them but explained that the food wasn’t, technically, free.
“In a soup kitchen, you’re receiving a meal, but that’s where the transaction ends,” says cofounder Viral Mehta. Karma Kitchen, in contrast, aims to create a never-ending cycle of generosity—and miraculously, the social experiment worked. While some customers left nothing, others were moved to lay down hundred-dollar bills. In the end it balanced out: The restaurant has been self-sustaining since opening in 2007.
The impact on Karma Kitchen’s customers, though harder to quantify, was even more astonishing. Some cried, or giggled, or hugged everyone in sight. After finishing her meal, one woman decided to sell her car because she wanted to stop polluting the environment. A magazine publisher stopped selling periodicals and instead gave them away for free. “There’s been a ripple effect in the way people behave,” says Pandya. “You can’t capture that value in dollar terms, but it’s there.”
From transaction to trust
Karma Kitchen has since spread to Chicago, Washington, and Tokyo—and they’re not the only eateries stirring up goodwill. At least 30 restaurants across the U.S. operate without prices, says Denise Cerreta, who helps get the businesses off the ground. They could not hope for a better mentor, given that Cerreta founded what was perhaps the first pay-what-you-can restaurant, in Salt Lake City in 2004: One World Café.
“Friends and family were very concerned I’d lost my mind,” she recalls. “But not only did it work, people started to replicate it. In these insecure economic times, more people are becoming aware that