At Mariana Chilton’s EAT Café in Philadelphia, the amount on the check is just a suggestion. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

PHILADELPHIA — When the check hits the table after a three-course meal at the homey EAT Café, it looks a little unusual. The receipt slip reads: “The total above is only a SUGGESTED price. Please write here the amount you wish to pay.”

The meal is valued at $15, plus $1.20 in tax. Some pay it. Some pay more. And many pay a few dollars, or nothing at all.

“We’ve had some graduate students come that are so grateful to have real food, and maybe they leave a couple of dollars,” said Mariana Chilton, a professor of public health at Drexel University and founder of the restaurant. “Even those who are not paying are not looking at it as a free meal. There’s a dignity to this place.”

EAT, which stands for Everyone at the Table, opened in October as one of about 50 experimental restaurants across the country that are transforming the way people think about food assistance and charity. They feed the needy and the non-needy side by side, giving low-income people the chance to eat a nutritious sit-down meal somewhere other than a soup kitchen.

“I couldn’t stand the idea that you have these gorgeous restaurants with nice food, and there are these families who are struggling who could never tap into that,” said Chilton. “I wanted to make a place where families could come experience some joy.”

No two pay-what-you-can cafes are alike. They might be run by Christian missionaries or secular volunteers; they might ask diners to help if they can’t pay. But each one has an owner with a deep sense of duty and a high threshold for pain. It’s hard enough to run a normal restaurant; one study pegs the first-year failure rate at 60 percent. Try running a restaurant where your guests don’t even have to foot the bill.

Denise Cerreta won a James Beard Award for her work on One World Everybody Eats, a nonprofit that helps people start pay-what-you-can cafes. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)
‘I felt my heart expand’

For Denise Cerreta, the idea came as a spiritual awakening. Fourteen years ago, she had just converted her Salt Lake City acupuncture clinic into a small cafe, which was a financial failure. One day, “with my spiritual senses, I heard, ‘Go to donation, let people price their own food,’ ” she said. “The next person that walked through the door, I said, ‘No more pricing; price your own.’ I was a little bit shell-shocked. And at the moment I did that, I felt my heart expand.”

Her One World Cafe served curries and lasagnas and salads, and earned mostly glowing publicity, except from Rush Limbaugh, who called it “an embarrassment to American business.” There were bumps along the way — bounced paychecks, a staff walkout — that Cerreta attributed to her own inexperience. But for a few years, the cafe turned a small profit.

Other charitable folks around the country began asking Cerreta how to start their own cafes. She started the One World Everybody Eats foundation, offering business plans and mentoring to community restaurant owners, eventually closing her cafe to help others start their own.

“We’ve always embraced that there’s no one way or right way to do this,” said Cerreta. “We try to meet people where they’re at and help them increase food security in their community.”

EAT Café owner Mariana Chilton talks to a customer in the dining room. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

The psychic rewards can be enormous. Cafe owners tell of the hundreds of thousands of meals they’ve served, the people who cry after eating their first square meal in years.

But getting to that point means toiling through years of bureaucracy, fundraising and doubt. First, you have to find the right location: If the neighborhood is too poor, a cafe won’t get enough paying customers, and if it’s too rich, it will be inaccessible to the people it’s trying to help. And then there are the neighbors.

“Our neighbor businesses were concerned that we would be attracting shopping carts stacked up 10 deep,” said Bob Pearson, a One World board member who operated the Common Table in Bend, Ore., for about two years. The restaurants tend to attract the food-insecure — working poor who have trouble making ends meet — but nearly every operator deals with residents who think it will be a soup kitchen. And sometimes, they’re hostile. When Libbie Combee opened Mosaics Cafe in Bartow, Fla., after a $200,000 renovation, she faced resistance from residents who were “determined to shut us down,” said Combee. “It got nasty.”

Some jurisdictions aren’t sure how to regulate them. Because Combee started her cafe through her religious ministry, she said the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s division of hotels and restaurants told her she was exempt, even though she asked to be regulated like a normal restaurant. When neighbors got word that she was operating an unregulated restaurant, the bad PR forced its closure. She provided $24,000 worth of meals in the 10 months she was open. Now, she is $46,000 in debt.

Volunteers, or not?

For a cafe to be sustainable, Cerreta says, 80 percent of customers need to pay the suggested price to offset the 20 percent who pay little or nothing — though some cafes make it work with other ratios, and the many cafes that are run as nonprofits supplement with grants. The tricky thing is to compel those who have the money to pay, and to pay extra, without scaring away those who truly need a free meal. Cerreta used to leave the price up to the customer. “When it was so anonymous, I think it was maybe tempting for people that would take five friends to lunch,” she said. Her cashiers began to tell people the suggested value of their meal.

That worked, but poverty researchers discourage that approach. Requiring low-income people to state, face-to-face, that they cannot pay the suggested amount could potentially shame them out of using the cafe at all.

“For some participants, it’s still going to feel like a charitable feeding experience, particularly if there’s something that makes them feel like they are different from the average diner,” said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

Chilton’s is the first community cafe to be founded by a poverty research center. That’s why, at EAT, the check is simply placed on the table in a traditional black plastic sleeve. There is no volunteering for meal credits.

Chicken potpie at the EAT Café. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

“The last thing anyone should do is require anyone who’s super poor to volunteer. Give them a job!” said Chilton. “I don’t want anyone to feel like they have to be worthy to come into our place.”

It also perpetuates a stereotype that people who aren’t working are just sitting around all day. “Being poor is a full-time job in itself,” said Waxman.

But the One World board members say the volunteer-for-food model keeps the cafes functioning. Other say it provides job training and a chance for low-income people to work alongside middle-class volunteers.

“I think it gives them a sense of dignity and belonging, where they too have participated in their meal in some way,” said Dorothea Bongiovi, who founded two JBJ Soul Kitchen cafes in New Jersey with her husband, Jon Bon Jovi. Diners can volunteer for one hour in exchange for a free meal for up to four family members. Staff members, some of whom are trained in social work, connect volunteers with other services.

“The food is a vehicle to get them into the Soul Kitchen to get them resources that they might not be aware of,” she said. Instead of calling it pay-what-you-can, Bongiovi prefers “pay it forward.”

‘You have to love on people’

Aside from profit, loss and the number of meals served, there is little data on these cafes. One study found that when consumers were asked to name the price they would pay for a product, they were less likely to buy it, because they felt bad they could not pay the “appropriate” price. But a broad, multi-restaurant study that examines a community restaurant’s impact on the poor has not yet been undertaken.

“There’s potential for something like this to have a bigger impact than can be mentioned in the profit margin,” said Julia Weinert, assistant director of poverty solutions at the University of Michigan.

Pearson says that for every 100 inquiries the organization receives, only about a dozen cafes actually open, and one-third of all community cafes have closed. Depending on location, he estimates it takes $30,000 to $100,000 to get a cafe off the ground, and then another $50,000 a year to operate it.

Kevin and Mary Bode are aware of the bumpy road ahead as they prepare to open the Knead Cafe in New Kensington, Pa., outside Pittsburgh, next month. They bought and renovated a building near “some of the poorest blocks in all of Pennsylvania,” said Kevin Bode. Their challenge? Finding a chef with top skills who is also “on board with our mission to help raise somebody up,” said Mary Bode. “The person that we get has to have a servant’s heart.”

As hard as the job is for owners, it’s also tough on chefs. When many of your ingredients come as donations — ground turkey one week, couscous the next — every week’s menu is a “Chopped” challenge. The chef has to be part teacher, part social worker, too.

“You have to love on people, and you don’t have to do it from a distance,” said EAT’s chef, Donnell Jones-Craven.

At the EAT Café, executive chef Donnell Jones-Craven plates an order of mac and cheese. (Dixie D. Vereen/For The Washington Post)

Some cafes are seeking out high-profile restaurateurs as mentors. EAT Café has partnered with Vetri Community Partnership, a foundation run by famed Philadelphia chef Marc Vetri and restaurateur Jeff Benjamin, author of “Front of the House,” who trained the EAT staff.

Aside from the Vetri involvement, two experimental pay-what-you-can locations of Panera Bread, and the occasional celebrity guest chef at JBJ Soul Kitchen, the concept has not had much crossover with the corporate and prestige restaurant world. That’s partly because, as the concept scales up, it loses its personal connection — a key factor to its success in small communities.

Still, the restaurant world has begun to take notice. The James Beard Foundation announced this month that Cerreta would be this year’s recipient of its humanitarian award. When a board member told her about the prize, “I said, ‘Oh, James Beard?’ I hadn’t heard of it,” said Cerreta.

A customer who cares

At the EAT Café on a recent Friday night, the vibrant green dining room was filling up with guests. A table of gray-haired baby boomers sat across from a table of 20-something students, and the piped-in jazz swirled around the room along with the smell of roasted vegetables. There was chicken potpie and meatloaf on the menu, and bread pudding with crème anglaise for dessert.

When she first learned about the pay-what-you-can concept, “I had never heard of such a thing,” said 87-year-old Calla Cousar, a longtime resident of the neighborhood who joined an advisory panel that Chilton set up to solicit community input. Now, Cousar comes once a week.

As a mentor to local teens, she’s going to start bringing groups of them here for dinner, “so they can eat something other than fast food,” she said. She motioned to the tables, the silverware, the glasses of nicely garnished basil lemonade. “I want to expose them to this.”