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!"

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."

• • •

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.

The economics of this can work in mysterious ways, or not at all. None of Karma Kitchen's founders, for instance, would have bet on support from a cab driver who brought a group of out-of-towners to the restaurant's door a few weeks ago. After hearing about Karma's credo from his passengers, the cabbie gave them money to pass along to the restaurant.

Nor was anyone expecting a $100 donation from a woman in a supermarket line who was so moved when she heard about the restaurant from one of its founder that she later handed him a $100 bill in the parking lot.

• • •

The idea behind Karma Kitchen began percolating in March among Mehta, wife Pavi, and a network of young people who have been doing charity and volunteer work in Silicon Valley for several years. Rather than start from scratch, which was not feasible, since the eatery was going to be operated by volunteers who have day jobs, the group decided to approach successful Berkeley restaurant owner Rajen Thapa.

As Pavi Mehta recalls: "He said, 'I am a man of action not words. Tell me what you need and when you want to start.' "

So much for lots of careful planning. Within a month, Karma Kitchen had opened, taking over the premises each Saturday night of Thapa's Telegraph Avenue restaurant.

It was a joining of like minds. Mr. Thapa has used his Berkeley restaurants to support a school for poor children in Nepal. "I myself started from poverty and hunger and was only able to move ahead when someone gave me a scholarship to attend school," he says.

While Karma pays Thapa a small fee for use of the restaurant on Saturday nights to cover the salary of chefs and some food ingredients, the fee pales in comparison to what he'd normally make on the highest volume night of the week. "We are all experiencing the satisfaction one gets when serving other people," says Thapa.

The volunteer staff is central to Karma Kitchen and distinguishes it from other restaurants that have sprung up across the country with no fixed pricing. Indeed, for those behind Karma Kitchen, the volunteer component is every bit as important as the food experience for guests. "The act of service, whatever it is, transforms you," says Mehta.

The biggest challenge to Karma Kitchen is sustaining an operation that requires such a heavy dose of volunteer spirit and muscle. But the restaurant has been operating for over six months with no lack of servers.

An hour before opening, the night's volunteers gather for an orientation. "Lately we have been very busy, and it can be high volume for five hours," says Pavi Mehta to the group. "But don't forget the generosity. In thought, word, and action, be in the space of generosity."

The volunteers weigh in. "For me this is about giving and putting aside my ego," says one. Adds another, half of a husband and wife team, "we heard about it from a friend, and we wondered should we eat here or volunteer. We decided to volunteer."

So far, the restaurant has routinely taken in more revenue than the fee it pays to the owner. The net profits are turned over to Charityfocus.org, an umbrella group that funnels funds to other "gift economy" activities.

It doesn't hurt that the food is very good. Put together by chef Chatra Lamichaney, who has cooked in restaurants in Cyprus, Iraq, India, and Vietnam, the menu is a full course vegetarian and mostly Indian meal. It starts with a salad, followed by steamed dumplings, cauliflower and potato curry, rice, lentil soup, and baskets of freshly baked flat bread. No alcohol or meat is served. "You know I'm from Michigan, and frankly I think some people will be sort of suspicious of this whole California, tofu, squishy thing," says first-time visitor Megan Hulce of Los Altos. "But I have to say I love it. I'll be back to volunteer."

Just the sort of circle of giving the founders had in mind.

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