Imagine a restaurant that has a creative, healthy and totally tasty menu, a lovely atmosphere and a friendly group of workers that truly wants to be there. Considering the cost of virtually everything has gone through the roof during these troubled times, one would only expect to pay top dollar to dine at a restaurant that boasts the triad of good food, pleasant ambiance and a helpful, happy staff.
But as I found today when I took myself to lunch at Cafe 180, I could have paid whatever I wanted, no questions asked.
Because Cafe 180 functions on the "eat what you want, pay what you can" concept.
I arrived at Cafe 180 around 11:30 am. The restaurant is open for lunch Tuesday through Saturday, and to be honest, I didn't want to arrive right when they opened, because I didn't want to be the first and only person in the place.
What I found was a flurry of activity. A very inclusive, community feeling. Everyone seemed to feel good about where they'd picked to have lunch.
And why not? It's a crazy-simple, trusting, genuine concept, and that intention spreads among the restaurant's patrons. According to the website (http://www.appetitesunite.org/Site/Home.html), the restaurant's mission is "dedicated to eliminating hunger and social barriers associated with food by feeding all people regardless of their ability to pay, in a dignified and respectful manner."
Just like you may have just done, I'd visited the Cafe 180 website, and frankly, I didn't know what to expect when I walked in the door. Part of my brain thought the place would be crawling with fringy, radical hippie types who'd try to sell me on something more than lunch.
There's a chef who's essentially in charge of the cooking, and he's surrounded by an amalgam of volunteers who are busily preparing lunch.
Today's kitchen help ran the demographic from teen to senior. Everyone took such care with what they were doing, and they looked like they were having a great time.
And they weren't making a dime, because they were all volunteers.
It was so good. And I could have paid anything I wanted.
Despite what some might assume when presented with this concept, it's an idea that works as well in practice as is does theoretically. Naysayers may think that the pay-what-you-can theory would have slackers and takers coming out of the woodwork to take full advantage, but that's obviously not the case. Because people are essentially good.
Contributing, as a volunteer or as a patron, makes going to these restaurants so much more than just going out to lunch.
And these local, independent restaurants aren't alone. Panera, a multi-million dollar publicly held chain of restaurants, has had great success with its test store in Missouri which operates with the same pay-what-you-can sensibility (http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2011-05-16-panera-pay-what-you-can_n.htm).
When I left Cafe 180 today, I wondered how the world would be different if this gentle form of bartering and volunteerism were expanded into the realm of goods and services. The possibilities seem limitless.
In a world that seems focused on how tenuous our economic thread has become, how life is about attaining and retaining, it's refreshing and satisfying to see an other-based, giving, caring, community-centered retail model flourish.
Cafe 180 and its counterparts prove that there are many ways to serve the greater good, and whether by volunteering or just stopping in for lunch, supporting the concept and witnessing its success makes a difference.
And making a difference is a delicious thing to do.