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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 …

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