The moment you walk into EAT Cafe you feel at home. Welcoming smiles and kind eyes greet you at the door as you enter the newly renovated row house on Lancaster Ave. The Community Open House bustles with families, journalists, Community Advisory Leaders, local artist and lots and lots of steaming food. The children spilled out into the backyard where tables are filled with sweets and refreshments. The EAT (Everyone At the Table) Café is Philly’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant. Its location on 3920 Lancaster Ave sits directly on the border between University City and West Philadelphia, two diverse and richly cultured neighborhoods.
Partnered with The Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the Vetri Community Partnership and Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sports Management, EAT Café aspires to create a welcoming environment to unite, educate and nourish the communities. In a city where 1 in 4 people are food insecure, EAT café aims to extend the right to access healthy and hearty food without shame. They provide high quality meals to any customer who walks through to the door. The three-course menu options change daily and always feature fresh and local ingredients.
The pay-what-you-can model has been proven to work. According to Callie Perrone, the Community Engagement and Communications Fellow, there are over 50 successful pay-what-you-can restaurants around the country supported by local social workers to companies like Panera. In this model, the restaurant gives a suggested price ($15 at EAT Café), but customers can pay what they wish. Further bolstered by corporate sponsors and grants, patrons who have the means to pay are urged to add on a bit more than recommended to help shoulder the costs for those in need. Some pay-what-you-can restaurants ask for service in exchange for money, but EAT café does not ask for anything in return. Skeptics believe that people would take advantage of this type of restaurant and never pay. However, the success of other pay-what-you-can restaurants goes to show that spaces founded on altruism inspire that in others.
Although food is a main aspect of EAT Café’s initiative, they also use their space to engage the community in educational and cultural activities. Customers are encouraged to showcase their art on the walls of their café, perform on their stage and participate in programs about culinary arts. During the open house, the walls held signs saying “Your Art Here”, welcoming participation in all aspects of the café. Perrone noted that “the space is built around community connection”. Being a recent graduate, she emphasized the importance of engaging the student communities in the neighborhood to further connect them to their neighbors. The Cafe is a built as a conduit for conversation among the diverse residents of the neighborhood.
The Community Advisory Committee is an integral aspect of EAT Cafe. This committee is a forum in which the community leaders and supporters give their input about the café operations and help design the concept for the restaurant based on what they perceive as their communities specific needs. Callalily Cousar, a leading member, actively supports her community. She is passionate about “fighting for the rights of the underdog”. At the Community Open House, she passionately spoke about the positive effects EAT café will have for her community as a way to bring together a highly diverse population. She was excited to see “a vision on paper actually happening and having a big impact on her community”. Food is always a great conversation starter.