They definitely aren't soup kitchens, but they aren't your average coffee shops either. At pay-what-you-want restaurants, customers from all walks of life can join together to enjoy a good meal, paying as much or as little as they can afford.
While the atmosphere and menu offerings may differ from place to place, there are a number of similarities to be found in these types of eateries. For starters, French fries and other fast-food items generally aren't on the menu. Instead, the foods that are served are healthy, home-cooked meals that offer nourishment with a heaping side of dignity in the form of cloth napkins, real silverware and table service. But some patrons will pay for that meal with money while others will volunteer their time instead.
Most pay-what-you-want locations also aim to foster a sense of community — to blur the line between those who have and those who don't by providing a space where everyone can come together and get to know their neighbors or just grab a healthy lunch to get them through the day.
Across the country, pay-what-you-want restaurants are popping up in unique locations — from Philadelphia to Denver to Shelbyville, Kentucky. Here are seven restaurants where good food is served for the greater good of the community.
E.A.T Cafe Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
One of the newest kids on the pay-what-you-want scene is Philly's E.A.T. (Everyone At the Table,) Cafe. The restaurant is close to downtown and offers unique fare such as Corn Tomato Pasta with Chickpeas or Grilled Mojo Chicken along with soups, salads, desserts and special kids' entrees. Nestled in Philly's Mantua district, the cafe serves up a diverse cross-section of the population - from nearby hospital employees, to college students, to low income residents.
Harvest Coffee & Cafe Shelbyville, Kentucky
Wednesday is "Pay What You Can Day" at Harvest Coffee & Cafe in Shelbyville, Kentucky, a Louisville suburb with a growing and diverse population. It's also the day that Harvest employees say "levels the playing field," for the local community so that anyone - regardless of income can come in and enjoy a healthy, fresh meal. On any other day of the week, a rosemary chicken salad sandwich with a side of chips costs $9.95, but on Wednesdays, patrons can order that same meal and pay whatever they can afford.
O.N.E. Bistro Miamisburg and Xenia, Ohio
At O.N.E. (Our Neighbors Eat) Bistros meals average $6-$9 but patrons are encouraged to pay what they feel they can. The menu includes a number of unique soup, salad, pizza, and burger offerings such as an apple quinoa salad or The Miamisburger (beef, chicken or black bean burger with sautéed jalapenos, red onion, pepper jack cheese, and honey chipotle aioli.) Saturday brunch includes such yummies as caramel apple pie french toast, pumpkin pie pancakes, and the Tuscan Omelet (an open-faced omelet with spinach, mushroom, red onion, roasted vegetables, feta cheese and quinoa).
JBJ Soul Kitchen Tom's River and Red Bank, New Jersey
JBJ (it stands for Jon Bon Jovi) Soul Kitchen is a community restaurant founded by New Jersey's favorite rocker. With its two Jersey locations, JBJ Soul Kitchen serves up food and dignity to the local community. Patrons can pay for their meals with dollars or by volunteering their time. Just one hour of volunteer duty is good for a dining certificate that feeds the volunteer and up to four family members. For more on JBJ Soul Kitchens, check out this post.
SAME Cafe, Denver, Colorado
With a rotating menu that includes such favorites as pizzas, salads, and soups, the SAME Cafe has been serving "good food for the greater good," for over ten years. As with the Soul Kitchen, customers can pay for their meals with their money or their time, and owner Libby Birky has been known to "call out" customers who regularly eat meals without paying in one way or another.
Panera Cares, St. Louis and Boston
At Panera Cares' two locations, customers can pay or volunteer to earn their meals. (Photo: Panera Cares)
You probably know Panera as the place to get a cinnamon roll as big as your head or a bowl of soup served inside a loaf of sourdough bread. But the restaurant chain also has two locations in St. Louis and Boston where the focus is on giving back. At Panera Cares cafes, customers can pay a suggested donation for their meals or volunteer their time to earn a meal voucher. The only thing that Panera asks in return is that customers eat their meals at the restaurant "as a means of building community."
Mosaics Cafe, Bartow Florida
At Mosaics Cafe - named to represent all of the broken pieces of a community that come together to make a masterpiece - customers can pay or volunteer to earn their meals. Patrons can also choose between private spots and communal tables where they can sit down and enjoy a meal with a neighbor. All staff are volunteers who, if they wish, receive training that can help them get jobs in culinary careers.