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 there can be another way, where people can eat and keep their dignity, get a hand up instead of a handout.”
In 2006, Cerreta founded the One World Everybody Eats Foundation, which holds annual conventions where no-charge restaurateurs can talk shop and share advice. Although Cerreta recently closed her own café, she knows of nearly 50 new establishments in the planning stages, from food trucks to open-invite dinner parties. There’s even Karma Tiffin, which delivers free lunches in tiffins, stackable steel lunch tins popular in India.
Typically the fare at these restaurants is not only free but healthy and organic. “It’s a basic human need to eat not just food but healthy food,” points out Denver-based Libby Birky, who founded the So All May Eat (SAME) Café in 2006, with Cerreta’s help. “Healthy food has become elite, with farmers markets only in certain parts of town. Pay-what-you-can restaurants level the playing field.”
And food isn’t the only thing on the menu. In Northern California, four doctors banded together to form Karma Clinic, freely offering services ranging from acupuncture to homeopathic remedies to nutritional counseling. In Vermont, a cab started shuttling people around without running the meter. Even rock band Radiohead allowed its fans to pay whatever they wanted for its 2007 album In Rainbows.
These acts might seem small in the grand scheme of things, but in time, they could lead to worldwide change, says Karma Kitchen’s Pandya. “The idea of ‘gift culture’ has the capability to be completely transformative for society. Given the devastation, at least at a social and environmental level, that self-oriented culture has brought on, gift culture—or a ‘we’-centric society—is a real path to regeneration.”
Mehta hopes that Karma Kitchen will wake people up to one simple yet counterintuitive truth: that selfless acts nourish the giver as well as the recipient. “I think it was a phrase the Dalai Lama used: be selfish, be generous,” he says. “That is, if we’re truly selfish, then we will see that in being generous, we ourselves stand to benefit most.”
Kheer—a sweet, milk-based rice pudding that can be served as a meal or dessert—is a Karma Kitchen favorite. Here they share their recipe.
1 cup cooked rice
4 cups milk
1⁄4 cup granulated cane sugar
2 tablespoons slivered almonds
1⁄8 teaspoon nutmeg
1⁄4 teaspoon cardamom powder
Mix all ingredients and bring to boil (for thicker consistency, mash two teaspoons of cooked rice). Immediately simmer on low for 20-30 minutes to thicken, stirring occasionally. Optionally, garnish individual portions with raisins or dried cranberries.