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Stacey Sprenz
The team at A Place at the Table is a combination of a small non-profit staff and volunteers who either donate their time or work in exchange for meals.

Making Pay-What-You-Can Work for Your Restaurant

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A Place at the Table in Raleigh, North Carolina, relies on guests who pay it forward to keep the pay-what-you-can business model a reality.
By Laura D'Alessandro March 2019 Finance

One year into business, A Place at the Table in Raleigh, North Carolina, is fielding requests to open more locations in more cities, but general manager Maggie Kane says that’s just not possible.

“It doesn’t quite work like that,” she says. “You really have to build relationships and immerse yourself into the community to garner support and have a city that rallies around you. It took us over four years to build that community here that supports us by dining, donating, and volunteering.”

Kane founded A Place at the Table in 2015 after working with people who experienced homelessness and noticed the divide. She believed simply that all people deserve good food—healthy food—in a dignified setting. She saw that opportunity was lacking in her community, and thus the opportunity spoke to her.

After exploring other pay-what-you-can cafés, Kane was inspired. She formed a board of directors and the community came together to build A Place at the Table, which opened January 8, 2018. The first year has been quite a ride for Kane, whose main takeaway is that restaurants are hard.

“I really don’t think we knew quite how hard it would be,” she says. “Staffing is definitely the most difficult part in the restaurant industry, in my opinion, but once you find some really great, hardworking people to form your core staff, that is a game changer. But that takes a lot of time. Also, because we’re a nonprofit, we rely on donations to sustain, and some months can be harder than others. We are not a regular restaurant and/or a regular nonprofit; it takes some education to teach people our needs, our mission, and who we are.”

Education plays a huge role in A Place at the Table—each guest must understand what their options are. A sign at the register explains the different options for payment—pay the suggested price, pay more, pay less, or pay by volunteering—and door greeters man the entrance daily to explain how the restaurant works.

“We run on a model that has 80 percent of people paying the suggested price or more and 20 percent of people volunteering for their meal or paying less,” she says. Many people are paying it forward, sponsoring meals for others and providing tip money. Generosity and support has made the business easier and more successful, Kane says.

“It is tough, but with our model, it gives people the option to pay it forward at the register, and fortunately, many people do and are helping take care of this community, and helping us stay in business,” she says. “We also receive corporate sponsors and individual donors to give us the extra help that we need.”

Food is sourced locally depending on cost and availability, but that doesn’t make the menu any less exciting. Chai-spiced Belgian waffles are a crowd favorite, Kane says. She credits chef Andrew Gravens for making the menu what it is, especially in the restaurant’s small kitchen. While guests may first visit A Place at the Table for its mission, they’re coming back for those waffles, among other things.

“We offer many gluten-free, vegan, and seasonal options, and everything is made in-house daily,” Kane says. “We have a variety of breakfast items like quiche, open-face toasts, and waffles, as well as several lunch items including salads, sandwiches, paninis, and heavier entrees like Red Beans and Rice, which traces back to chef Andrew’s Louisiana roots.”  

Providing delicious meals for guests of any income level isn’t Kane’s only priority. A Place at the Table also pays its employees a living wage. To make the business work, the staff stays small and the holes are filled by volunteers. For that reason, A Place at the Table is a counter-serve joint. Kane says that’s not a must for pay-what-you-can business models, but it makes things easier for them.

“It’s certainly possible for a model with servers to work, but we rely so heavily on volunteers, it would be difficult to train new people day in and day out to act as servers,” she says. “We pay staff a living wage and could not afford to hire servers at that level with the amount we would need. We use three to five volunteers as food runners at a time to deliver food and clear tables, and to us, this is the most effective way to utilize them.”

From Kane’s vantage point, the business model is gaining momentum around the U.S. She sees many more pay-what-you-can restaurants popping up.

“It would be amazing to see more of them pop up,” she says. “But it definitely takes a village to make this happen.”