April 4, 2016; Daily Philadelphian

In a few months, Philadelphia will open its first “pay what you can” restaurant. The EAT (Everyone At the Table) Café is a nonprofit created by a collaborative consisting of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management at Drexel University, Vetri Community Partnership, and the greater West Philadelphia community.

Philadelphia is currently plagued by food insecurity, with approximately 22 percent of residents lacking access to sufficient food and nutrition, which is higher than anywhere else in the state as well as the national average, which hovers around 14 percent.

The founders of the EAT Café hope that, aside from providing needed sustenance, that it will also help to create a shared community and understanding around hunger issues amongst Philadelphia residents.

Jeff Benjamin, the cofounder of Vetri Community Partnership, says:

Food itself doesn’t discriminate. Anyone, at any given time, can come through the doors, whether it’s a student, a professor, a lawyer or someone from trade, it doesn’t really matter because everyone will be eating the same thing. At that moment, you have something in common with the person you are sitting next to.

The cafe is focusing its menu on healthy options, knowing that fresh produce and other nutrient-rich foods are even more of a struggle to access for low-income residents. Chef Donnell Jones Craven, chef and general manager of EAT, promises, “EAT Cafe will serve no sodas. The food will not just be good and affordable—it will be nutritious, as well, minus all those empty calories that come with inexpensive fast food.”

As with many pay-as-you-can models opening up across the country, EAT will be relying on a strong mix of patrons who can pay a little extra to subsidize their fellow diners, as well as volunteers and grants. Predecessors like New Jersey’s JBJ Soul Kitchen and Charlotte’s GoGo Fresco farmer’s market seem to indicate that trusting that patrons will pay what they can—above or below the suggested $12-per-meal price—is a strong bet. Still, particularly in its first few months as it gains its presence in the community and strives to reach a critical mass of diners, its partnerships with Giant Grocery, Metropolitan Bakery, and La Colombe and the volunteer efforts of community members will be a significant driver of its success.

Jones Craven is confident that it will not only be a success, but will serve as a model to other restaurants in Philadelphia and beyond. “We’re hoping that this community-based café model will become the model for other cities,” he says. “We’re hoping it’ll make restaurateurs think about their business differently and ask what they can do to help.”—Danielle Holly