A Progressive Model

Denise Cerreta has pioneered a pay-as-you-can restaurant model that is catching on. Some even call it a movement.
March 17, 2011

What a nice idea: Provide gourmet fare, allowing patrons to pay what they can based on their perceived value of the meal. And if they’re short of legal tender, helping out in the kitchen will suffice. But anyone running a restaurant that way would see it fold within weeks—right?

Wrong. In 2003 Denise Cerreta converted her Salt Lake City sandwich shop to a sliding-scale payment basis, meanwhile phasing out a lucrative acupuncture practice she had maintained in the Utah capital for seven years. “I’d hit a spiritual glass ceiling, trapped in materialism without realizing it,” she says. “Nothing seemed special anymore.”

Leaving acupuncture to found her one-person eatery entailed an exhausting half-year transition, while Cerreta pondered the pay-as-you-can paradigm. Two months into the sandwich business, she says, “I finally told a customer, ‘Pay what you think is fair.’ ” So began the process of devising an altruistic yet sustainable operation. With Cerreta’s help, viable sliding-scale restaurants have sprung up in Alabama, Colorado, Texas, Missouri, New Jersey, Michigan, Oregon and Washington state.

Cerreta’s compatriots are a dedicated faction under the loose umbrella of her One World Everybody Eats Foundation. In establishing what Cerreta calls community kitchens, One World affi liates offer “not a handout, but a hand up,” she says. “The media has labeled us a movement. I’m fi ne with that.”

One World acolytes include Libby and Brad Birky of Denver, who recently toasted the fourth anniversary of their SAME (“So All May Eat”) Café. Libby Birky describes Cerreta as the “guiding mother of the One World family. Before we opened, Denise moved to Denver for a few weeks to help with everything.”

Brad Birky concedes that although the percentage of overhead derived from their donation box has declined from a peak of 90-plus to about 75 percent (the remainder from grants or fundraisers such as baked-potato-and-board-game community nights), this nonprofit business is no lark. The Birkys plan to endure.

Anyone who launches a restaurant in the One World mode should prepare for long hours. Flexibility and ingenuity play substantial roles in determining what works best locally. As Cerreta says, “Every city and clientele is unique.” Provided they obey tax and health codes, proprietors run an establishment using their imaginations. The Birkys keep their doors open just 18 hours weekly, choosing not to post a suggested price list. Other options for locations include whether to feature one or more always-complimentary dishes.

Proprietors unsure of betting their whole business on a fl exible-payment menu may opt to experiment with that system a day or two weekly, fine-tuning the enterprise to determine its merits and specific methods. Cerreta recently coached an owner who intends to go sliding-scale one day per week, donating that day’s proceeds to a local humane society.

This brave new business model encourages individuality in proprietors and customers alike. “No matter their means, we treat people with dignity. They return the favor,” Libby Birky says. Diners with thicker wallets compensate for those struggling to scrape together spare change. “Donations average between $3.50 and $4. We’ve hit a high of 10 bucks.”

The Birkys’ pride in SAME Café infuses their banter as they finish one another’s sentences. “We cook simple, high-quality food,” Brad says. “We reject the notion that only an elite deserves to eat well.”

Reality would surprise anyone expecting queues of the ragged and unwashed at pay-as-you-can establishments. “We’re not a soup kitchen,” Brad states flatly. “We reach out to the ‘in betweens.’ ”

“Yeah,” continues Libby. “We’ll have a doctor at one table, next to a window washer, next to a college student, next to a single mom with her kids—a wide mix.”

An essential element is minimizing waste. The culinary industry routinely discards heaps of perfectly edible food, and menus often offer larger portions than diners can consume. But they don’t throw away much at One-World-style restaurants, where patrons select dishes and portions individually. This requires implicit trust.

Some diners cannot pay anything. They still get to eat. From the outset, Cerreta drew heavily on volunteerism. She talks of a successful lawyer rolling up her sleeves to clear tables, handing plates to an unemployed house painter who washes the dishes. Other volunteers handle various tasks, from preparing ingredients to cleaning restrooms.

Most volunteers have no previous experience in food service; some have never held a job at all. Those who distinguish themselves with punctuality, reliability and willingness to accept instruction qualify for formal letters of recommendation from community kitchen operators—but such letters must be earned.

“When a paid staff slot opens, we go straight to our volunteer list and hire from that roster,” Cerreta says. “We sign recommendation letters only for those whom we would put to work ourselves.” The letters attest to specific skills in which volunteers have demonstrated sufficient competence to step in and begin work right on the spot.

Volunteers take their roles seriously. “One guy comes in and we say, ‘Try this, fresh from the oven,’ but he goes, ‘No, I haven’t done anything,’ ” Libby says. “He insists on that. Work first, then eat.”

Operating One World hasn’t been without challenges. Cerreta says the organization suffered initially because of a lax work environment, which she blames on her own lack of management experience and long periods spent out of town helping other startups. In 2008, after she took steps to correct inefficiencies, such as installing a time clock, employees walked out in protest. Cerreta re-immersed herself overnight in the hands-on operation of the café—a nearly overwhelming task that succeeded thanks to the few remaining employees, volunteers and friends unwilling to let her dream die.

Today, under the stewardship of Chef Giovanni Bouderbala, One World Salt Lake City runs entirely independent of Cerreta’s daily oversight. This allows her to devote full-time attention to her One World Everybody Eats Foundation.

Along with nurturing startups, Cerreta perceives a broader responsibility to spotlight the truth—some of which is discomforting. According to 2009 U.S. Department of Agriculture data, 14.7 percent of American households experienced “food insecurity” (defined as an “economic and social condition of limited or uncertain access to adequate food”). That translates to 50.2 million people, 17.2 million of them children.

Speaking of the One World movement, Cerreta pauses, choosing her words carefully. “This is spiritual franchising. I want to create a big enough snowball that it keeps going without me.”

Quite a resilient snowball—one that takes the heat and stays right in the kitchen. Most small businesses fail within 18 months of inception, but more than a dozen One-World-style community kitchens are up and running, and planning continues for others. In mid- January, Cerreta anchored the second annual One World Everybody Eats summit in Santa Fe, N.M.

Proprietors of pay-as-you-can eateries may not amass conventional riches, but they can certainly expect intangible rewards. “It’s like throwing daily dinner parties,” enthuses Libby Birky.

Of the ongoing collaborative effort she witnesses across socioeconomic lines at SAME, Libby says, “It’s a lot of hard work, but it can be almost magical. I’m elated.” She and husband Brad agree that rather than why-are-we-doing-this? moments, often the pair greet their mornings laughing and saying, “Can you believe we get to do this?”

Open Community Kitchens, Cafes and Restaurants

1. One World Salt Lake City - Salt Lake City, Utah 41 South 300 East, Salt Lake City, Utah www.oneworldsaltlake.org

2. SAME (So All May Eat) Cafe - Denver, Colorado 2023 East Colfax Ave., Denver, Colorado 80206 www.samecafe.org

3. One World Spokane - Spokane, Washington 1804 East Sprague Ave., Spokane, Washington 99202 www.oneworldspokane.org

4. Potager - Arlington, Texas 315 South Mesquite St., Arlington, Texas www.potagercafe.com

5. A Better World Cafe - Highland Park, New Jersey 19 South 2nd Ave., Highland Park, New Jersey www.betterworldcafe.org

6. St. Louis Bread Company Cares - Clayton, Missouri 10th Central Ave., Clayton, Missouri

7. Comfort Café - Denver, Colorado 3945 Tennyson Street, Denver, Colorado www.thecomfortcafe.net

8. Cafe 180 - Englewood, Colorado 3315 South Broadway, Englewood, Colorado www.appetitesunite.org

9. Ransom Café - Mobile, Alabama 7485 Airport Blvd., Mobile, Alabama www.ransomcafe.com

10. The Forge - Abilene's Community Kitchen 2801 S. 1st Street, Abilene, Texas

11. Panera Cares Community Café - Dearborn, Michigan 22208 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, Michigan

12. Soul Kitchen Community Restaurant - Red Bank, New Jersey 121 Drs. James Parker Blvd., Red Bank, New Jersey www.jbjsoulkitchen.org

Source: http://www.oneworldeverybodyeats.com

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