A restaurant with no checks
At the Karma Kitchen in Berkeley, Calif., customers pay what they want – including nothing – for a meal.
Patrons of Karma Kitchen don't need to fight for the check at the end of a meal. There isn't one. Instead, the "guests" of this restaurant are handed a gold envelope with a handwritten note on the outside that says, "Have a lovely evening." Inside a bookmarker-sized card states: "In the spirit of generosity, someone who came before you made a gift of this meal. We hope you will continue the circle of giving in your own way!"Skip to next paragraph
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On a sun-splashed, late-summer evening along Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue, the street musicians are in full flight, students laden with books hunt for cafes with seats and Internet access, and strollers have that aimless Saturday-evening gait.
Here at Karma Kitchen, though, things are starting to buzz. By 6 p.m., most of the seats in the small, yellow-walled restaurant are taken, and the noise level is rising above the background sitar music. But some of the most interesting conversations are taking place at the doorway as the maitre d' greets customers.
"Have you been here before or heard about Karma Kitchen?" asks Viral Mehta, one of the restaurant founders and greeter for the evening. Two young professional women say they've heard about it, but invite further explanation. Mr. Mehta obliges: "Your meal has in effect been paid for by someone before you, and you are free to leave whatever you like when you are done. All of us working here are volunteers and are providing this in the spirit of service."
One of the women, a gerontologist who works with the disabled, is visibly moved. The other woman nods. "OK, so we either volunteer or we make a donation, right?" "Well," pauses Mehta, "actually you could do both or neither. It is all up to you."
Ground rules set, the two take a table, blending into a mix of young families with children, students, and a surprising number of out-of-towners, many of whom have heard of the restaurant by word of mouth. What they all have in common is that they are taking part in an experiment, one particularly fitting for this antiestablishment university town.
The sound bite for this restaurant is that meals cost whatever you want to pay, starting at zero. But the real idea beneath it runs deeper than the cost of a dinner. "This is about creating a shift in perspective," says Mehta. "It's a very simple shift but the shift is fundamental. It is a shift from transaction to trust. From a contract to a compact. From being separate to creating community."
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While too puny to regard as any serious challenge to Western economics, this restaurant fits loosely into a smattering of activities across the country and abroad that operate under the principles of the "gift economy." They range from fledgling filmmakers like Smooth Feather Productions in New York (which uses volunteer artists to make films free for individuals and groups) to meditation camps to new forms of music distribution (Radiohead this month offered its latest music as a digital download on the Internet, priced at whatever the customer wants to pay).
The common principles are volunteerism, no pleas for funds, and a view that these activities are not about changing the world. Rather, as Smooth Feather founder Silas Haggerty notes on his website: "We do small things, change ourselves not the world."
The ethos behind "gift economy" activities is to offer goods in the spirit of service with the conviction that the act, if genuine and without strings, will be self-sustaining. Put simply, a service or product is offered with the assumption that the act of giving is its own reward, and that it is likely to generate more giving in an ever-enriching circle.