One World Cafe
August 6, 2010 8:45 PM   Subscribe

"There's no set menu, you pay what you can and a national chain is even testing out the business model. Eight years ago, One World Café opened up at 41 S. 300 East with a simple goal: feed hungry people in the community with good organic food. There was no cash register, and diners paid whatever they thought was fair."
posted by mr_crash_davis mark II: Jazz Odyssey (45 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Surprising to see something so local on the blue. It's a great place. If you're ever in SLC you should check it out!
posted by msbutah at 9:20 PM on August 6, 2010


Why do they hate America?
posted by swift at 9:22 PM on August 6, 2010


They respect America to the degree they think fair.

Wasn't there a recent post about a bakery doing something like this?
posted by pracowity at 9:43 PM on August 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


And it only took two comments into the KSL comments board for this story to denounce this place as a bastion of socialism and how the progressives are forcing charity upon us. If you're in a negative mood head over to the KSL Prop 8 discussion boards. As a rule I don't look at KSLs boards unless I am ready to get spittle-flecked angry.
posted by msbutah at 9:47 PM on August 6, 2010


Uh... unless that's metahamburger, I think you're missing out on swift's juicy organic pay what you will hamburger. (Mmm... hamburgers...)
posted by Jahaza at 10:20 PM on August 6, 2010


OK... I'm the idiot... you're not referring to the second comment here... perhaps I shouldn't post at 1 AM when I got six hours sleep the night before.
posted by Jahaza at 10:21 PM on August 6, 2010


It's already stressful enough to leave a tip. Now the whole bill is a tip. Besides, I feel like making a profit is a crime these days. It's hard enough to eke out a living without the competition GIVING OUT THE PRODUCT FOR FREE. Enough already.
posted by pantsonfire at 10:26 PM on August 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Reminds me of this place in Berlin

Weinerei

Honesty pays in Berlin's bars

posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:27 PM on August 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


unless you have several million in reserve for the next few years, it's impossible to run a place that big in NYC and to do it with that model. even a lunch truck costs about 100K to run because what you pay in a parking spot here in NYC pays for a whole apartment elsewhere.

i've been grousing a lot lately about leaving the city and now that i am on the lookout for work in this absolutely wonderful economy, am open to the possibility to leaving it behind. boostrapping is insane here and trying new ways of doing business is almost impossible. am not the only one to feel like this.
posted by liza at 10:29 PM on August 6, 2010


Interesting.
posted by nangar at 10:37 PM on August 6, 2010


The product isn't being given away for free,

The lentil as anything restaurants in Melbourne, and My uncle's yoga class in North Fitzroy run on this same principle.

The principle is not give stuff away for free, but that most people are honest, and if you treat them as if you expect them to be honest, they will usually treat you fairly in return.

Of course some people are not honest and will take advantage of you. But no one is proposing a pay what you want bank. Bakeries, cafes and yoga classes stand to loose little from the occasional dishonest customer, but they stand to gain a lot in terms of patronage and word of mouth marketing by taking the risk of trusting the customers to pay fairly.

And its not a tip, unlike a tip, at least at Lentil as Anything and at Mark Street Yoga, you pay into a box, no one sees you pay, only you know what you pay. At Lentil, staff are paid a wage and don't rely on tips
posted by compound eye at 11:08 PM on August 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


but that most people are honest

Yes, but "honest" is not an absolute standard whereas the costs of doing business generally are. Setting prices is hardly treating customers unfairly.

What if you turned this model around and instead of each customer deciding what she wanted to pay, the restaurant decided - on an individual basis - what she should pay. "Well she's dressed nicely and carrying an iPhone - she pays 3X what we charge the lady wearing a hefty bag." Wouldn't this work as well? I mean most business owners are honest, right?

Charity is a wonderful thing, but it is not a business model.
posted by three blind mice at 11:25 PM on August 6, 2010


Charity involves giving something away without any expectations of return. This is an exchange of money for goods and services, i.e. plain old capitalism.

The twist is that it's actually bringing a bit of game theory into a social milieu. By not setting prices in advance, every customer has to decide "What's the least amount I can pay for these items and not feel guilty?" Or if you want to be more dispassionate about it "What is this worth to me?"

For some it will be more than what might have been asked normally. That's an obvious win for the restaurant. For some it will be less, but still more than the cost. In some cases this is a slight lose, and in others a win if the customer might not have bought the item at the asked price. And of course some will pay less than cost or even nothing. Another obvious losing scenario.

The gamble/investment/experiment here is that the proprietors are betting that human nature makes their income generating transactions outnumber the losing ones. Replace "human nature" with "marketing" or "sales team" or "awesomeness of product" and it's no different than any other business.
posted by Freon at 11:45 PM on August 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


Calling this 'socialism' is completely wrongheaded. This is just voluntary cooperation, sort of the libertarian ideal state.

The reason socialism is feared is that it's forced sharing, an excuse for people with guns to take your stuff, keep some of it for themselves, and give the rest to other people. That's organized theft, and it's why it's hated by people who love liberty.

But this? This is exactly the sort of thing that libertarians have always said would work, and it's interesting seeing it, well, actually work.

I think the key may be, as they say in the article, that it's a local community, that people feel like they're part of something, and they want it to succeed. It would probably fail if it people tried to take it to a large scale, because then individuals aren't accountable anymore, and it's to their benefit to take as much as they can.

I'd think a very loosely-affiliated of small organizations like this could be very successful. But trying to scale it will probably break very badly.
posted by Malor at 12:05 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


The gamble/investment/experiment here is that the proprietors are betting that human nature makes their income generating transactions outnumber the losing ones. Replace "human nature" with "marketing" or "sales team" or "awesomeness of product" and it's no different than any other business.

Marketing and sales teams deserve their own separate designation. Sales teams are trained and marketing firms desire to delude customers in order to get them to buy things. A better market would simply contain information, like, "This is an orange flavored soda that was created in Nazi Germany using waste products. Each can contains 150 calories and no nutritional value." Instead, it's sold by photoshopped sex objects singing to upbeat, meaningless lyrics. Strangely, none of the facts about the product are mentioned.

I realize marketing is sort of an arms race, but I think it's ultimately detrimental to the whole system. There's at least one guy who has guessed at the nuclear option.
posted by atypicalguy at 12:06 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


It trips me out to see people having a negative reaction to this concept. It's like a staged re-enactment of the aphorism I've seen oft repeated on MeFi that the central fear of Americans is that somewhere, somebody is getting something they don't deserve.

I feel like making a profit is a crime these days.


Then do I sure have some criminals for you!
posted by threeants at 12:11 AM on August 7, 2010 [10 favorites]


I can't imagine trying to decide how much to pay for my food based on what I "think is fair". I already agonize over whether to tip 15% or 20%.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:14 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Not many anarchists on MetaFilter then, judging by the reactions...
posted by Dysk at 2:32 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Lentil As Anything opened in Melbourne in 2000, with a similar model.
posted by Sutekh at 2:44 AM on August 7, 2010


There was a post about the Saint Louis Bread Company Cares Cafe back in May with a similar theme. "Pay what you want" may be catching on as a business trend.
posted by chrisulonic at 2:46 AM on August 7, 2010


The reason socialism is feared is that it's forced sharing, an excuse for people with guns to take your stuff, keep some of it for themselves, and give the rest to other people. That's organized theft, and it's why it's hated by people who love liberty.

I'm now even more confused of the current US use of the term 'socialist' - on the one hand, if that's what folk think socialism is, I understand why the imagined prospect of it is so feared; on the other, the way Obama is labelled a socialist makes even less sense.

I'll resist the urge to do a Treat of Westphalia-style dump of the Frankfurt Declaration at this point...
posted by a little headband I put around my throat at 2:53 AM on August 7, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm glad to see from Sutekh's linked Wikipedia article that the mismanagement issues at Lentil As Anything have been resolved. I saw the documentary about it on SBS, and thought that as much as it was an awesome idea that should work well, the dude in charge was an idiot. His staff seemed so incredibly frustrated with his lack of leadership/organisation/clue skills.

The setup was pretty simple: a menu based on whatever could be sourced cheaply (therefore seasonal and vegetarian), payments made into a locked box. They employed a lot of new migrants and refugees, who could use that experience to move on to other jobs. But the guy in charge was seriously neglecting to pay his suppliers, to the point where he was putting them out of business. He wouldn't listen to his business advisors or staff or anyone with a suggestion for running the business while keeping their principles.

Does anyone know if they replaced him with someone more sensible? I'm looking at the current issue of The Big Issue, and they've got a feature on a cafe/design house that employs refugees in Melbourne, and the lady running it looks like one of the frustrated Lentil organisers.
posted by harriet vane at 3:34 AM on August 7, 2010


I've heard that when (white collar) employers tell people "You have x days off per year" people tend to take them all - but when employers say "You can take as many days off as you like" people actually take fewer days off on average.

Part of me wonders if this is a similar thing - that customers will on average end up paying more.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:55 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


When I was in college, there was a small restaurant in town that catered primarily to students. Food was served family style and you paid what you could, if you could, knowing that you could make up for it the next time. They had been in business then for about thirty years and did a booming business. It was called Mama's Kitchen or something similar and all started from a lady trying to keep a bunch of hungry college kids fed.
posted by tamitang at 4:48 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


I can't imagine trying to decide how much to pay for my food based on what I "think is fair". I already agonize over whether to tip 15% or 20%.

Yeah, same here. I would probably avoid this place, or only go there as a tourist, not to eat on a regular basis. I don't like places that are predicated on guilt. What's relaxing about that? Why should lunch be an episode of The Price is Right?

OK enough pessimism. It's a cool idea, if the food is given freely, and there is no peer pressure. I just need to get over my bad previous experiences with this model (snooty pay what you want museums where the staff rolls their eyes).
posted by bluefly at 5:11 AM on August 7, 2010


It's always nicer to be able to design to your best users rather than against your worst. You do need a healthy majority of generally good users for that to work out, but when it does it means the whole experience is so much better for everyone. As an added bonus, it means you can avoid spending the often disproportionate time and effort that it takes to guard against exploits.

I think this works best in situations where most people don't have a reason to be "bad users". Whether that's because they mostly have the means to pay and aren't starving, or more generally because they're invested in the community, it means you only have to worry about the few people who just like getting one up on the system.
posted by lucidium at 5:16 AM on August 7, 2010


Quoting from Denise Cerreta's explanation of how her business model works [pdf]:

We do suggest fair prices that can eliminate the stress placed on customers who want to treat you and them fairly but do not know what to pay and this allows our establishment to treat itself fairly and pay our bills.

Uh-huh.

Evidently they have a list of prices posted for the dishes available on a particular day. You calculate how many servings you've had of what and put your payment in a drop box. It's an honor system, but you're not making up prices off the top of your head.

The charitable part comes in having a complimentary dish available (suggested price $0), usually rice and dal apparently, but sometimes they throw in other stuff if they've gotten a good deal on produce, and giving people meal vouchers for mopping floors, washing dishes and other stuff.

Interestingly,
People choose their meal, dessert, and drink, and they come up with a price for the whole thing in their head if they are unassisted in this process. This never seems to include the drink value if it is something like orange juice, specialty drinks in glass serving jars that you had to pay for etc...

She suggests limiting beverages to coffee, tea and water (what they do) or having customers pay for drinks separately. Weird, but she's been doing this for a while, and I'll take her word for it. Maybe people forget their drink refills but remember second helpings of lasagna? I know this seems to contradict yoyo-nyc's links. Maybe it works differently with alcohol? I don't know.

Waitresses get stiffed too, and they depend on tips for a lot of their income, but not often enough they can't make money, and not usually by regulars. The same seems to apply here. And they take some steps, just in the way things are set up, to make customers uncomfortable with not paying, that probably don't bother paying customers.

Cerreta's "Guide for Starting a Community Kitchen" focuses mostly managing a restaurant efficiently - scheduling employee and volunteer time, payroll, regulations, taxes, buying equipment, etc., etc., etc. She doesn't seem to think getting customers to pay is a major obstacle to a business like hers, though she does discuss it. Most of it would probably apply to running any restaurant - except for the volunteer part, and her discussion of non-profit and for-profit options.
posted by nangar at 6:31 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Is there a problem with this model that patrons don't necessarily know what a meal is "worth," since they don't know the costs of staffing, rent, licenses, etc? What someone thinks is fair and what is objectively fair based on the costs of producing it are not necessarily the same thing, adn who will study up on restaurant economics to go out for lunch?
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:41 AM on August 7, 2010


A local cafe bakery that opened maybe five years ago uses the no-cash-register model. They put prices on things but there's no one manning the till. Instead there is an old transit bus payment machine which you're supposed to drop money in. If you need change you can ask for help or just go around the counter to the drawer sitting out, which has some coins and a few bills. They bake right there at the counter and are very friendly to the customers. Some people skate but some people also toss in money and don't worry about change so it evens out.

What seems to make it work is reasonable prices, engaging and friendly bakers, good product, and an old-world atmosphere that reminds people of what they think a cafe was like.

They have opened their third location and are likely working on four and five now.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:42 AM on August 7, 2010


Wow, a lot of negativity about an innovative idea here. Is this such a shock to the pure-blood Capitalists of the USA? Sheesh.

Innovative ideas in any business are surely always a good thing, no? In London there's a boom of "underground restaurants" run out of peoples' homes, much of which innovated out of necessity, i.e. the financial down-turn.
posted by Lleyam at 6:48 AM on August 7, 2010


Charity is a wonderful thing, but it is not a business model.

They've been doing this for eight years.
posted by mecran01 at 7:23 AM on August 7, 2010


I think providing customers with some information about the accumulated costs to the restaurant so that they can better gauge what is fair to pay is a brilliant idea. I've gone to Bike Pirates, a co-op in Toronto, a few times this year to get walked through doing some things for the first time, like changing cables or cassettes. It's a great place, but the moment when I have to drop some money into the opaque bin at the front of the shop is always a little tense. (I've bought parts there, too, but those are hard-priced and present no stress at all.) I want to pay what is fair for the time, but I have no idea what it costs to run even a cheap storefront with volunteer labour in Toronto. It would be nice to see a sign saying something like "It costs us about $x dollars a day for rent, utilities, supplies and garbage collection."

But given the place has operated for 4 years without providing this kind of information, would people who have been going there for a long time feel guilted out by this new info being presented, as if they'd been underpaying for years and needed direction?
posted by maudlin at 7:35 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's the public radio business model. Some uses will pay, some will get a free ride. It's working for Radiohead and NIN. Looks like its working for some restaurants.

I actually ate at One World Cafe a couple months after they opened and was struck by how bizarre it seemed. I was sure they couldn't last. I moved out of state and hadn't thought about them. This mention is great and I'm glad to see they're still around.
posted by Grundlebug at 7:59 AM on August 7, 2010


I think providing customers with some information about the accumulated costs to the restaurant so that they can better gauge what is fair to pay is a brilliant idea.

I just want to reiterate, they do actually provide that information, although the phrasing of the KSL article implies they don't. And yes, that probably is necessary to get this to work.

(Media reports can sometimes be misleading. What else is new.)

It's more like 'Pea Soup - $X.XX per serving.' They know what their dishes cost and they have a list posted to tell you, rather than expecting customers to figure up labor, produce and overhead in their heads. Though, since it's on an honor system, you can pay less (or more), and you can make adjustments for serving size. (And, yes, maudlin it would probably be smart if your bike shop did something similar.)
posted by nangar at 8:15 AM on August 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Pay What You Want" is definitely taking hold, and not just in restaurants and coffee-shops - it's a very viable model for musicians too - from huge artists like Radiohead down to a thousand up-and-comers at bandcamp.com ...

To those saying that this just causes them a headache trying to work out how much to pay based on the meal's worth (and running costs of the restaurants, and, and...) I say you're thinking about it wrong. This is not about removing the pressures of pricing from the seller to the buyers, it's about removing the concept of pricing altogether. It's not "how much do I think that was worth", but "How much can I afford to pay?" You only worry about it if you're concerned you might pay too much, and if you're concerned that you might pay too much then you're not ready for this yet - pay what you want, let the sellers decide whether they can survive on what they make or whether this business model doesn't work for them...
posted by benzo8 at 8:33 AM on August 7, 2010


To those saying that this just causes them a headache trying to work out how much to pay based on the meal's worth (and running costs of the restaurants, and, and...) I say you're thinking about it wrong.

I don't think this is true at all, because "how much I am willing to pay" (not "how much I can afford to pay?") is somewhat at odds with "what does the seller need to at least break even?" And "oh well,the business model didn't work" is not a good answer to "how can we get this business model to work?"

So, if I have two businesses using this model, both selling cupcakes, say, and the red velvet cupcake from one cost $1.50 in ingredients and time and the same style of cupcake from the other cost $2.00 (they use nicer (or just more expensive) butter, maybe), knowing that before I decide what I feel is reasonable to tack on for the flavor, shopping experience, sense of what I owe the business for getting me a cupcake when I wanted, history with the bakery, etc is a useful thing. Maybe giving each place $1 seems like a reasonable price to me -- I don't bake, I have no idea what goes into the production, but I can afford $1 -- but, after getting a sense of the costs, I might decide that $2.00 is reasonable for the second place, but only $1 is good for the second, because they did a bad job baking it and that expensive butter was rancid.

Maybe if I am really broke, I would just give them $1 in any case, trusting that other people (including me when I am more flush) would pay $3 because that seems reasonable to them. But I would know that was what I was doing rather than just basing it in my totally ignorant sense of the costs.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:21 AM on August 7, 2010


The principle is not give stuff away for free, but that most people are honest, and if you treat them as if you expect them to be honest, they will usually treat you fairly in return.

This is a principle that is apparently older than our species. In studies, apes have been shown to behave fairly to each other when they can. But what it depends on is a sense of community -- that the person to be treated is one of US. One of THEM can be ripped off with impunity. (See the very long threads in Metafilter about the morality of shoplifting from faceless businesses.) In "Mama's Kitchen" -- a place I'd have loved to try -- that was an actual community, and I see that One World Cafe is in Salt Lake City, which has its issues but is also famed for its "niceness."

Businesses have gotten quite good at creating the sense that you, the customer, are a member of the Community, so I bet that the "pay what you want" model can do reasonably well, depending on its neighborhood and the skill of its marketing. There are going to be freeloaders who gorge themselves for pennies, but -- as long as the business itself is considered by more customers than otherwise to be run by humans, a part of their own neighborhood, the bills will get paid.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:30 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


FTA: "Higgins' research suggests that the business model has a way of making us more accountable for our actions, and less anonymous."

This probably explains some of the angst and negative responses the concept of a restaurant like this engenders. Many people prefer an anonymous restaurant experience. For instance, my mother-in-law tends to avoid restaurants that have waitstaff because she'd rather just pay for her food and eat it in peace without having to interact with waiters throughout the meal. I'm guessing this pay-what-you-can model encourages more of a personal emotional investment in the business than most conventional restaurants, and works because it's the sort of business that will attract the kind of patron who is attracted by that kind of investment. That's probably why this model wouldn't work very well for, say, a car dealership. Or McDonald's.

Which actually is kind of an interesting notion, which probably should freak out capitalists because it underscores just how much of our commerce is based on patronizing businesses that we not only don't give a crap about, but actively resent or despise. We buy cars from salesmen we mistrust. We shop at huge megastores that make us feel faceless and insignificant. We fly on airlines that seem sometimes to hate us as much as we hate them.

What would happen if all businesses had pay-what-you-can models, and could only exist by forming relationships with customers based on fairness and goodwill? Well, complete catastrophe, of course, but is that a failure of this business model, or a failure of our societal model?
posted by Pants McCracky at 9:36 AM on August 7, 2010 [4 favorites]


I don't think this is true at all, because "how much I am willing to pay" (not "how much I can afford to pay?") is somewhat at odds with "what does the seller need to at least break even?" And "oh well,the business model didn't work" is not a good answer to "how can we get this business model to work?"

The thing is, ultimately "what does the seller need to at least break even" is not your problem, as a patron, any more than it is when you eat at a conventional restaurant. It's really pretty simple: you pay what you can or what you think the meal is worth, and leave it to the owners to determine if this pricing method works for them.

And the concern over whether or not this business model can work seems to be assuming this is all just theoretical and hasn't been attempted, when, in fact, yes, it is actually working, and has been for some time.
posted by Pants McCracky at 9:43 AM on August 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


The thing is, ultimately "what does the seller need to at least break even" is not your problem, as a patron, any more than it is when you eat at a conventional restaurant.

It is if you want to come back for their coffee or muffins or soup on another day. I guess this goes back to the community musings you and Countess Elena make above -- if you feel that the restaurant is part of your community, making sure the seller does better than breaking even is pretty important.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:41 PM on August 7, 2010


Part of me wonders if this is a similar thing - that customers will on average end up paying more.

Truth? Depends on how good the food (and service) is.
posted by jonmc at 4:40 PM on August 7, 2010


Imagine the restaurant's average cost per meal is $5, but the marginal cost (cost of ingredients) is $1. They might charge $8 per meal, and try to make a $3 profit. They could gain in two ways by switching to a pay-what-you-want model: they get customers who only can pay between $1 and $8 who wouldn't come otherwise, and extra money from some other customers who are willing to pay over $8 for their meal. As long as you can keep mooches from paying less then $1, you could easily do better as a pay-what-you-want place than a standard restaurant.

It's not that much more radical than offering a student discount or a happy hour at an inconvenient time, and lots of restaurants do those.
posted by miyabo at 8:37 PM on August 7, 2010


I kinda wanna go to Lentil as Anything for a meetup, now.
posted by Ritchie at 2:07 AM on August 8, 2010


"Pay What You Want" is definitely taking hold, and not just in restaurants and coffee-shops - it's a very viable model for musicians too - from huge artists like Radiohead down to a thousand up-and-comers at bandcamp.com

I can understand pay-what-you-want working for MP3 downloads because the marginal cost of a download is negligibly small. You could have 100 freeloaders and one person paying $5 and still make a profit. I can pay what I want and still know I'm giving the band a fair deal - that is to say, a deal that doesn't lose them money.

On the other hand, a restaurant has to pay for food, kitchen staff and equipment, building rental, government permits, and so on. With 100 freeloaders one person paying $5, the place would soon run out of money and shut down.


Imagine the restaurant's average cost per meal is $5, but the marginal cost (cost of ingredients) is $1. They might charge $8 per meal, and try to make a $3 profit. They could gain in two ways by switching to a pay-what-you-want model: they get customers who only can pay between $1 and $8 who wouldn't come otherwise, and extra money from some other customers who are willing to pay over $8 for their meal.

Doesn't this assume that your $8 customers keep paying the same amount?

That might work for regulars who remember the $8 price, but the non-regulars who would have paid $8 if that was printed on the menu might pay less - especially if they know they could have made that meal themselves for $1.
posted by Mike1024 at 2:46 AM on August 8, 2010


You seem to be underestimating the marginal costs of a download. You're overlooking the hundreds, or even thousands, of unpaid hours learning to play an instrument, to write and record the songs and to mix and master the MP3... You're not taking into account the investment in instruments, recording equipment, studio-time and electricity. You're failing to consider that $5 doesn't keep the band alive very long while they're putting the same effort into recording their follow-up.... If you think the band are dancing a jig when they receive your dollar because it's all "pure profit", you may be mistaken!
posted by benzo8 at 3:46 AM on August 9, 2010


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