This Restaurant Doesn't Charge Customers Anything — And It's Killing It

This Restaurant Doesn't Charge Customers Anything — And It's Killing It
Karma Kitchen/YouTube
Karma Kitchen/YouTube

You've probably never been to a restaurant quite like this before.

Karma Kitchen is shaking up the restaurant business with a radical approach to paying for your meal. The idea is simple: Pay it forward. Customers don't pay for themselves, they pay for whomever comes after them.

What began as an experiment in human generosity back in 2007 is growing across America and fast becoming part a larger movement in major metropolitan cities like Philadelphia and New York City to rethink charity and the restaurant industry.

The concept is so unorthodox it's hard to imagine it working, but it is.

Here's how it works.

Source: Karma Kitchen/YouTube
Source: Karma Kitchen/YouTube

Almost everything we pay for is based on the toll road model, where you pay for yourself and keep on going. Karma Kitchen is building a different kind of toll road completely: one where everyone pays for the car after them. When you dine, your bill is $0 and you pay for the next person instead of yourself, and repeat.

"Karma Kitchen is a sandbox to say, here are the rules, they are different," Birju Pandya, Karma Kitchen's coordinator, told Mic. "There's something around the purity of this idea that holds really solid, really true."

Source: Karma Kitchen/YouTube
Source: Karma Kitchen/YouTube

What this radical approach to payment means is that if one day everyone walked in and no one paid, Karma Kitchen would shut down. Instead, it just keeps on growing.

The pop-up restaurant started as a simple experiment in Berkeley, California, in 2007, operating for one day out of the week. Today, Karma Kitchen has grown to over 20 locations around the world, with spots in Illinois, D.C. and California, and it has served almost 50,000 meals. Some locations operate one day of the week and others every day. It technically runs as a project of ServiceSpace, a larger nonprofit that promotes generosity.

One time, a customer wanted to put the entire idea to the test, Pandya recounted to Mic. He paid $100 for his meal and told the waiter he trusted him to bring the right amount of change. The waiter went back, thought about it, and returned with the man's change. The customer opened the fold and found $120 and, according to Pandya, started freaking out, walking around the restaurant laughing and hugging everyone. That night, more cash came in for the restaurant than any other night.

There's something infectious about the idea.

Source: Karma Kitchen/YouTube
Source: Karma Kitchen/YouTube

Karma Kitchen isn't the only one taking this idea and running with it.

Rosa's in Philadelphia takes a similar, albeit modified approach. At this pizza joint, people can give an extra dollar to pay for a slice for someone else. Colorful sticky notes on the walls indicate a slice paid for and waiting to be redeemed.

"We find ourselves able to help a lot of people," Mason Wartman, owner of Rosa's, told Mic. "So it's been very cool."

Source: Upworthy/Facebook
Source: Upworthy/Facebook

Wartman, who quit his desk job in New York City and opened Rosa's, actually got the idea from a customer. The customer asked if homeless people ever came in needing a slice. He paid an extra dollar and Wartman grabbed a sticky note and put it up on the wall. From there, it just grew organically. The business was profiled by Upworthy in March, in a video that has been viewed over 24 million times. In total, Rosa's has given away 15,000 slices of pizza, according to Wartman, a third of those in just the last couple months.

Source: Upworthy/Facebook
Source: Upworthy/Facebook

Addressing a problem.

According to the latest government statistics, 49.1 million Americans, or about 1 in 6 people, live in households where at times during the year, they are "uncertain of having, or unable to acquire, enough food to meet the needs of all their members." 

Source: USDA
Source: USDA

There are many charities and government programs, but often people find their money goes into an opaque budget and they never have the experience of actually helping someone. It's perhaps telling that while charitable giving through traditional means has remained constant, volunteering is actually up. The pay it forward model represents a bold, even if currently limited, effort to rethink how the economy could work.

It has serious potential.

The beauty of paying it forward is in the close connection to a donation.

"I think the simplicity is the main difference between what we do and what other companies or bigger charities do," Wartman said.

Rosa's and Karma Kitchen play on humans' innate drive to be generous and experience the benefits of altruism. It's a muscle that the regular, everyday economy doesn't often allow us to exercise. The pay it forward model not only rethinks payments and how our economy works, it encourages us to rethink our relationship with strangers.

"It's pulling out a part of human nature we know is there and that we celebrate," Stephen Post, professor of preventative medicine and author of Why Good Things Happen to Good People, told Mic. "[Paying it forward] constitutes a small act, but it's meaningful."

That the idea for paying it forward at Rosa's actually came from a customer speaks to the power of grassroots movements.

The impetus to start it can come from anywhere.