Restaurant News & Reviews

Raleigh’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant has found a home

Raleigh’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant has found a permanent location in downtown Raleigh.

A Place at the Table announced Thursday that it will open in the former Cafe de los Muertos space at 300 W. Hargett St. The coffee shop closed in February amid legal and financial issues.

The concept is a first for the city and is intended to provide fresh, healthy and affordable meals for diners of all backgrounds. It will serve breakfast and lunch from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.

After renovations, the restaurant at the bottom of the Hue apartment building is expected to open this fall.

Maggie Kane, executive director of the nonprofit, said the restaurant will give those who might not be able to afford a restaurant meal a chance to feel a sense of dignity.

“This is a place that we feel, for people with means, is a great cause,” Kane said. “You’re helping support someone who can’t afford it.”

The menu will carry waffles, paninis, grits bowls, salads, toast and coffee drinks made from Raleigh-based Larry’s Beans. The restaurant will seat about 40 people with additional tables outside.

This is how it will work. Diners can choose from the following options:

▪ Pay what you are able to afford.

▪ Pay what you would typically pay for a similar meal. There will be a suggested donation.

▪ Pay what you would typically pay, plus an extra donation.

▪ Pay specifically for someone else’s meal. “That’s your way to pay it forward and buy someone else’s meal,” Kane said.

▪ Pay by volunteering your time. Volunteer jobs won’t be in the kitchen. Instead, they’ll include sweeping floors or the sidewalk, wiping windows or tables, bringing food from the counter or even washing windows of nearby businesses.

The organization has organized regular Second Saturday pop-up brunches at Raleigh restaurants to raise money for the cafe and awareness about the organization. It also has been a test to see how the model could work by reaching out to potential customers of a pay-what-you-can restaurant.

The restaurant’s model estimates that 80 percent of the diners will be able to subsidize the 20 percent who can’t pay for some or any of their meal.

A Place at the Table is a nonprofit organization. Funding for the restaurant comes from events, fundraisers, individuals and churches, though the organization is not faith-based. It also has received a few grants. Eventually the expectation is the restaurant will be funded from meals.

A lengthy search

The location announcement caps a lengthy search for a permanent home. The nonprofit was formed by Kane, a 26-year-old graduate of Wakefield High School, who grew up volunteering and worked with the homeless after graduating from N.C. State. She said she never thought it was fair that she could eat out at restaurants while others could not.

A Place at the Table received its nonprofit status in November 2015, and the search for a spot began. While the organization has held its pop-up fundraising brunches and outreach events in the community, including brown bag lunches at churches, Kane and her board looked for a location. They were supported by businesspeople, restaurant industry leaders, and those who work in nonprofits and at churches.

Stephanie Raney, a board member, said they had hoped to find a large space to equip with community tables – “and have space where everyone could be mingling and interacting, with a full menu.”

But as it proved difficult to find a space to fit those needs, they reshaped their concept to see what they could secure more immediately.

“Because we looked at smaller places, our field opened up and this particular place became available,” Raney said.

Part of the challenge, Kane said, is the misconception that the cafe will be a soup kitchen. There can be a stigma associated with that, she said, versus the goal of being a coffee shop or restaurant that serves people from all walks of life.

Raney said the restaurant isn’t a soup kitchen.

“We’re definitely not in the business of providing a handout,” Raney said. “We call it a hand up. So a soup kitchen has, just what it sounds like, a simple meal, probably soup, you go through the line. We are breaking down socioeconomic boundaries, because we’re going to have people of all walks of life eating together, whereas at a soup kitchen you’ll probably find it’s a little more homogeneous.”

Socially conscious cities

A Place at the Table has looked at the model established by the F.A.R.M. Café in Boone, which opened in 2012. Both the Boone restaurant and the Raleigh cafe are part of the One World Everybody Eats Movement, an umbrella group for the 60 pay-what-you-can cafes across the country. Its founder received the James Beard Foundation’s Humanitarian of the Year Award this May.

The nonprofit cafe in Boone – whose name stands for Feeding All Regardless of Means – serves lunch made with locally sourced ingredients when possible. The cafe’s staff is 90 percent volunteers, according to its website. Anyone can work in the cafe for an hour in exchange for a meal.

At the Raleigh restaurant, local volunteers may come from the group who can pay for the meal, Kane said, before those who volunteer as their payment.

Those affiliated with the organization – a community advisory board and board members – have been continuing outreach efforts to let potential customers know of A Place at the Table’s existence. They have cooked meals at churches and at Oak City Outreach Center, which provides the homeless with resources, and reassured them that a location beyond the pop-up brunches is on the way.

Kane adds that she hopes to find volunteers from across the community, including students. She thinks Raleigh is the perfect place to find them.

“Raleigh is a very socially conscious area to live in, and a lot of people are part of this social justice movement,” she said. “I think people just want to help in whatever they can.”

But just as important, she wants to feed those in the city who need food, and give them a chance to eat somewhere they might not think they could go. At one of the Second Saturday brunches this year at 18 Seaboard restaurant, Kane said she spoke with a woman who didn’t know her.

Kane recalled what the woman told her: “Isn’t this so cool that this organization is letting us come in and pick something off the menu and order it? I’ve never been in a restaurant like that.”

“That’s exactly what we want to do,” Kane said. “She felt really special being there.”


Leah Moore contributed.

Jessica Banov: 919-829-4831, @JessicaBanov

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