How a North Carolina pay-what-you-can café is fighting loneliness and food insecurity

As you walk through the doors of A Place at the Table, it looks like any other café: Warm light, upbeat music, healthy sandwiches and pastries on the menu and community members chatting and eating together.

You might not notice anything different until you get to the cash register, where you’re presented with three options: pay the suggested amount for your meal, pay what you can or volunteer for your meal.

A Place at the Table is a pay-what-you-can cafe and has been serving fresh and healthy food to the Raleigh community for the past five and half years. Even through the COVID-19 pandemic that caused many restaurants to shut their doors, A Place at the Table has seen incredible success and community support.

Since 2020, they’ve served 35,238 meals, received over $62,000 in meals donated and 4,681 “pay it forwards” (when a customer buys a $10 voucher for someone else’s meal).

A look inside A Place at the Table

Origins of pay-what-you-can

The pay-what-you-can model originated with a cafe in Salt Lake City run by Denise Cerreta in 2003. She went on to found One World Everybody Eats to help others start their own models and share best practices. As the organization grew, they developed seven core principles to ensure the long-term success of pay-what-you-can cafes. The principles, which include choice, the opportunity to volunteer and good food, were later endorsed by researchers for adequately addressing the tenets of food insecurity.

There are now 14 existing or soon-to-be-open cafes affiliated with One World Everybody Eats, and an untold number of other businesses operating with similar models.

Julie Williams, Board President of One World Everybody Eats said meeting people’s basic needs of hunger is the start to addressing larger root causes of systemic problems including homelessness. She also said that pay-what-you-can cafes, by bringing together all members of the community, forge empathy, as many people privileged enough to not have experienced food insecurity do not realize how common it is.

“It’s a small community [of cafes], but it’s big if you think about how many lives individual cafes impact and touch," she said.

Getting started

Raleigh native Maggie Kane started A Place at the Table in 2015, just a few years after graduating from N.C. State University. Working at a day shelter after college, she saw the need for community spaces that served not only those experiencing food insecurity, but everyone regardless of background.

A Place at the Table relied on volunteer manpower to open, and community members gave their time to plan events, sit on committees and spread the word about the cafe, Kane said.

Some of the many volunteers for A Place at the Table

“We call it a community movement," she said There is no way a Place the Table would have gotten started without the community. It is not me. It's not just our board of directors or our staff. It is a whole community that came forward to make this happen.”'

Then in January of 2018, A Place at the Table opened their doors. The model worked; 50% of customers paid the full price of their meal or more, the other 50% volunteered for their meal or used a meal place card, or a donated voucher from the price of a meal.

“Food is a tool that everyone shares, everyone has in common,” Kane said. “We all have to eat, we all love to eat. So food is that common denominator between people. And so it's the tool towards bringing people together towards building relationships.”

In addition to a staff of waiters, chefs, and baristas, the cafe has a weekly team of regular volunteers.

Shelby Mathews, a resident of Apex North Carolina, has been volunteering at a Place at the Table for two years. She manages a team of volunteers every Wednesday and describes them as a family - they look out for each other.

The cafe sees about 80 volunteers a day, with as many as 40 to 60 volunteering for their meal. Many of the daily volunteers experience homelessness and the cafe gives them a space to connect with other people that care about them, ask how they're doing and celebrate big life moments like birthdays or new jobs. Mathews said it's also an important place to share information about housing resources or for volunteers to meet with case managers.

"Cafe is just so much more than just a food source. It's a gathering. It's a gathering of community is a gathering a gathering of necessities and it just offers so much more than just a meal,” Mathews said.

The challenges of pay-what-you-can

One pop-tart pastries served at A Place at the Table located at 300 W. Hargett St. in Raleigh NC

Running a pay-what-you-can model is the “hardest business ever” Kane said. The cafe combines the financially challenging aspects of a nonprofit and a restaurant. She calls every day “beautiful chaos,” chaotic to keep the cafe thriving and beautiful in how rewarding each day is.

The pandemic posed a huge challenge to A Place at the Table and essentially turned their entire model upside down. Kane said they went from serving about 50 to 75 free meals a day to nearly 400. Limited to curbside pickup, they also lost the shared community space at the core of what makes the café special.

But the pandemic also reaffirmed Kane’s mission to create a sense of community for everyone in Raleigh.

“We say we're fighting food insecurity, but we say we're also fighting community insecurity, providing a place for so many people to belong,” she said. “The pandemic taught us that a lot of people are hungry, but it's also taught us that people are lonely.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Raleigh Place at the Table cafe: Pay what you can, earn much more