The menu at EAT Cafe in West Philly on a recent Friday night, reads (and tastes) like a Southern comfort diner—Aunt Cora’s Meatloaf, Mom’s Chicken Pot Pie, Strawberry Shortcake. Inside, it feels like a homey stop for neighborhood regulars, like the three elderly women at one table and the family at another, with its candlelit tables, jazzy blues, green and burgundy walls. There’s raucous laughter, and quiet conversation, like in any of myriad restaurants in the city.
But there’s one thing that is not standard about EAT Cafe: The prices. That’s because the Lancaster Avenue restaurant, which opened last fall, is pay-what-you-can. The $15 suggested price for a three-course meal (which is already amazing) is just that: A suggestion. Some people pay more, others less.
“The idea for EAT Café came from our work with community members,” says Kate Scully, the Policy Director for Drexel University’s Center for Hunger Free Communities, which opened EAT Cafe with Drexel’s Center For Hospitality and Sport Management, Vetri Community Partnership and the community. “Too often poverty and hunger can be very isolating experiences. The idea of a place where people can gather for a healthy and filling meal without the stress of how they would pay for it hopes to break through some of that isolation.”
Opened in October, EAT Cafe—which stands for Everyone At the Table—is unique among restaurants in Philadelphia, an experiment in how to provide inexpensive and tasty meals, cut down on food waste, and truly respond to the needs of the neighborhood. Its success relies on the culinary and people skills of manager and chef, Donnell Jones-Craven, who creates a new menu every week based on food he can buy inexpensively, or that is donated, to the cafe. Invariably, the meals are delicious and the atmosphere friendly.
Jones-Craven’s journey with food began at 11 years old, when his aunt gave him his first cookbook and he made his first garden salad. He grew up in the Bay Area, then moved to Atlanta for college to study sociology with the hopes of becoming a teacher, just like the aunt who introduced him to cooking. To make extra money during college, he started selling cheesecakes and zucchini and banana breads to students and faculty members on campus. Midway through, he realized he had a passion for food and switched to culinary school. He worked in the hospitality industry down south, then moved to Philly in July of 2014 with his wife and three kids—two of whom are now in college—to become part of Philly’s culinary scene. When he saw the opening at EAT Cafe, he knew it was for him as it linked his interests in sociology, community, food and education.
Jones-Craven gets regular donations from Metropolitan Bakery in Philly and Giant Foods in Wynnewood. The Mantua Senior Group and neighborhood churches donate produce and other dry goods regularly, depending on the season. And at times, people from the neighborhood drop off any excess food they have—tomatoes, swiss chard, rolls. These neighbors are the same folks that dine there.
Jones-Craven is a culinary anthropologist—always ready to improvise, an important skill given that 35 percent of EAT Cafe’s food is donated. “We get different food donations in each week, so I have the opportunity to really experiment,” he explains. Jones-Craven gets regular donations from Metropolitan Bakery in Philly and Giant Foods in Wynnewood. The Mantua Senior Group and neighborhood churches donate produce and other dry goods regularly, depending on the season. And at times, people from the neighborhood drop off any excess food they have—tomatoes, swiss chard, rolls. These neighbors are the same folks that dine there.
“We will use your donated food,” explains Jones-Craven. “I like to cook using local ingredients and like to experiment with authentic recipes from different cultures.” Past menus have included Louisiana-style black eyed pea fritters, a take on General Tso’s chicken, and North African-inspired carrot and parsnip salad. “We should pay homage to different cultures and their food; we live in such a diverse urban landscape with people and food from all over the world. When I cooked jerk chicken a few weeks ago, someone from Jamaica came in and said, ‘This isn’t as good as my mom’s jerk chicken but it’s still good.’” (Beating your mom’s anything seems impossible, so Jones-Craven was satisfied with that response.)
To ensure community participation at EAT Cafe, there is a Community Advisory Committee—an ongoing forum through which the restaurant garners the input of neighbors, community leaders and supporters to inform cafe operations, build connections and plan for the cafe’s future programming. The committee meets once a month, and is open to any community member in the neighborhood.
What may be most innovative about EAT Cafe is its repurposing of food that is going to be wasted to help those who may not have access to good healthy food. Each year, 160 billion pounds of food in the U.S. is wasted. The main reasons for this in developed countries like the U.S. are consumer behavior, lack of culinary education, and high aesthetic standards. We are a “throwaway culture,” meaning many of us don’t fully consider how our actions may affect others and the environment, and feel little to no personal responsibility to reduce waste.
Much of that waste comes from restaurants and food service facilities, which are also positioned to gain the most from reducing waste—some $1.6 billion annually. Several individuals, organizations, corporations and chefs are tackling this issue just as EAT Cafe is.
There are many models of pay-what-you-want cafes around the world, including over 50 in the U.S. alone, that have different visions behind their ventures. Seva Cafe in Ahmedabad, India adopts more of a gift economy model, with the idea that you pay-it-forward for someone who will eat after you. Not far from us, JBJ Soul Kitchen in Toms River and Red Bank, New Jersey, lets you pay for your meal by volunteering your time if you don’t have any money to exchange. And Lentil As Anything is a chain of restaurants in Australia that believes that everyone should be able to share food and culture, claiming they are a “pay-what-you-feel” model.
These restaurant models are based on trust and the idea that everyone should be able to eat, that food is a basic need, a human right. “The whole premise is that people pay what they can,” explains Jones-Craven. “And by adopting a model that is repurposing food that was going to be wasted anyways, the goal is to turn that food into something that is culturally relevant and delicious.”
“Too often poverty and hunger can be very isolating experiences. The idea of a place where people can gather for a healthy and filling meal without the stress of how they would pay for it hopes to break through some of that isolation,” says Kate Scully, of Drexel’s Center for Hunger Free Communities.
As of now, EAT Cafe is finding that about a third of its customers pay the suggested price, a third pay a bit more, and a third pay a bit less. This has allowed it to stay open. “This is the mix we are hoping for to make the restaurant a success in its mission,” explains Scully. EAT Cafe is not a business. It’s a non-profit venture that is also supported by donations from the Pierce Family Foundation and a grant from the Francis Fund. Scully says the hope is that EAT Cafe will eventually sustain itself via the pay-what-you-can model and primarily through repurposing wasted food. Hunger-Free Communities also hopes to open EAT Cafes around the country.
EAT Cafe has its challenges. The restaurant is committed to hiring people from the neighborhood, not only to truly keep it a community cafe, but to also help provide jobs for folks who may have trouble getting work because of criminal backgrounds, citizenship status, or who are otherwise marginalized by society. Because of this, not many employees have pre-existing restaurant experience. Jones-Craven says this is where the educator in him comes out. “I have had to learn to be patient,” he says. “It’s a little slower but everyone is learning and growing together.” Their small staff of four is currently growing. (If you live in the neighborhood and would like to join the team, see more details here.)
When I spoke with Jones-Craven earlier in the week I visited, he had intended to make burgers for the upcoming menu. But due to a winter storm, his food delivery was stalled and the brioche buns he was dreaming about never arrived. So when I sat down to dinner on Friday night, he had improvised on the fly, turning the burgers into meatloaf. By using donated and salvaged food, Jones-Craven must be flexible which adds to the creativity of his job. “You gotta use what you have fresh and be open-minded,” he boasts.
As I finished up my last few bites of Aunt Cora’s meatloaf smothered in mushroom gravy and collard greens, I looked up to find Jones-Craven doing his rounds in the restaurant, asking every table how they were doing, sharing stories, and delivering desserts. The place is vibrant—and I mean vibrant. “EAT Cafe is a warm, friendly environment for all people to come and be a part of the community,” explains Jones-Craven.”It’s an atmosphere where everyone can gather and feel welcome.”