Karma Kitchen in Northwest D.C. serves trust and generosity

By Anton Ramkissoon
Thursday, May 6, 2010

It's on me.

Who would have thought those three little words would mean so much? Imagine a restaurant where anyone can dine and receive what's freely offered. And it's all a gift.

Operating under the concept of paying it forward, Karma Kitchen in Northwest Washington challenges guests and volunteers to reconsider the way they dine. There are no prices on the one-page menu during Sunday brunch. No bill at the end of the meal. Believe it or not, the food has already been paid for by a previous diner.

"We are trying to move away from a transaction-based society to a trust-based society," said Aparna Kothary, one of the volunteer coordinators and co-founders of the D.C. location. "By removing your expectation when the bill says zero dollars at the end of your meal, a note is attached and we ask you to continue the circle of giving by paying this act of kindness forward for the next person's meal based on trust. We're just trying to see what happens."

There is no hidden motive behind a paid-for meal, and no one really knows who chooses to pay it forward or for how much. In addition to paying for others' meals, diners sometimes leave small gifts, known as tagging, for others to share.

"Coming here sets the tone for the rest of the day," diner Raesin Caine said. "I can feel it as soon as I leave the restaurant how I immediately interact with people. I wish I could have something like this every day. You can feel the difference when food is prepared and served with generous intentions."

On other days of the week, Polo India Club operates as a regular restaurant. On Sunday afternoons, though, the restaurant allows Karma Kitchen to use its space to further Karma's experiment in human generosity.

Karma Kitchen is dine-in only, serving Indo-Nepalese and vegetarian food but no alcohol.

A project of the nonprofit Charity Focus, Karma Kitchen was established in Berkeley, Calif., in 2007. Nipun Mehta, founder of Charity Focus and Karma Kitchen, considered opening a branch in the District after visiting.

"Nipun came to D.C. to give a talk at the Green Festival. We met at Polo India Club . . . and decided to continue our discussion about the operation of Karma Kitchen," said Krishna Desar, one of the co-founders of the D.C. location. "Everyone was excited about the beginning of another Karma Kitchen, and the rest is history."

The D.C. location celebrated its one-year anniversary in February.

"At first, we set a goal to run it for only three Sundays, and if we were able to sustain it, we'd continue," Desar said. "As you can see, the experiment has worked."

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