Where "Check Please" Is Your Call

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Eric Ostling

Restauranteur Denise Cerreta at her cafe in Salt Lake City, UT, One World Cafe, where customers are invited to barter and pay what they think the meal is worth.

Deciding between the spicy peanut stew and the pesto chicken, or the squash soup and the avocado, chicken, lime soup, are not the only decisions tempting patrons at the One World Café in Salt Lake City and the SAME (So All Might Eat) Café in Denver. They must also decide what the meal is worth.

These pay-as-you-can cafes have missions that are unapologetically altruistic — call it serving up fare Robin Hood style. "Our philosophy is that everyone, regardless of economic status, deserves the chance to eat healthy, organic food while being treated with dignity," explains Brad Birky, who opened SAME with his wife, Libby, in October. Customers who have no money are encouraged to exchange an hour of service — sweep, wash the dishes, weed the organic garden — for a meal. Likewise, guests who have money are encouraged to leave a little extra to offset the meals of those who have less to give. "We're a hand up, not a handout," says One World owner Denise Cerreta, who prides herself on the fact that everyone can afford a meal at her café.

An epiphany scribbled out on a cocktail napkin on a plane ride gave birth to SAME café (www.soallmayeat.org). Both Brad and Libby had been searching for a meaningful way to give back while making a living. Admitted volunteer junkies, they had been serving and eating with homeless shelter residents for the past eight years. "We loved the service aspect of giving to the community and attacking the issue of hunger," says Brad. "Plus we both love to cook." When they found out about One World, they flew to Salt Lake City to learn how it was run. Cerreta, in turn, spent a month helping the Birkys prepare for opening. One World has had more than 25 inquiries from others around the country interested in starting a similar café. Recently, the café formed a nonprofit www.oneworldeverybodyeats.comaimed at helping others replicate such a venture.

The cafes' clientele is as diverse as the from-scratch buffet-style dishes. Attorneys and CEOs, students, seniors and soccer moms, as well as those down on their luck are among the 150-200 customers that dine daily at One World. Sniffling from a cold, Mike Dega, an environmental engineer, came in looking for comfort food. "I feel like I'm getting a whole new set of nutrients here as opposed to processed food — plus all the spices and flavors here are a real turn-on."

The cafés' business models have won fans among the city's well-to-do residents, many of whom regularly dine there. At One World, patrons have given Cerreta a car, bought new dishes, arranged to professionally clean her carpets, supplied new tile for the restaurant bathrooms, and donated property for an organic garden and funded a new irrigation system for it. Last week, a gentleman left a $50 bill next to an empty bowl of soup at SAME. Since opening, one man has regularly come in and left money on the counter without eating, stating "I was blessed today so I though I'd pass it on." He's homeless.

Because customers decide on their portion sizes and the fact that most of the food is fresh (as opposed to stocked), very little food is wasted. At the end of the day at One World, only one garbage can needs to be emptied. "I can come in here and eat a ton after a (construction) shift for lunch and pay what I can, and then my mom, who eats a lot less, can just get the amount she wants and pay what she feels is fair," says regular Justin Wood, 25, who is sipping coffee and eating dessert with his mother on a Friday afternoon.

Paying the check by honor system has its risks; there are always those who will exploit the opportunity and eat for free — perhaps more so in big cities. At Babu, an Indian restaurant in New York City, the pay-what-you-feel-is-fair method resulted in too many people getting a free meal. One Friday night, a rowdy group of 10 young Indians walked in and took over the restaurant's large central table. Their response to no prices was to leave no money; not even a tip for the wait staff. Babu now states their prices. Birky at SAME has yet to notice anyone not paying. And Cerreta has had to approach only a few people, including one group of diners that paid nothing over several visits. She pointed out that by not paying they were stealing from her. They ended up contributing.

Deciding what to pay can give some diners indigestion. So Birky suggests they consider three things: How much did you eat? How much would you pay for that elsewhere? And what is fair to your own budget?

Once you're satisfied with the prices, the brie, cranberry and chicken pizza will taste even better.