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Welcoming Everyone to the Table: Philadelphia’s First Pay-What-You-Can Restaurant To Open

October 20 2016

People enjoying a meal at the EAT Cafe.
Community members enjoying a meal at the EAT Cafe during its first open house. Photo by Center for Hunger-Free Communities staff.

In Philadelphia, one in four people are “food insecure.”

That means that 25 percent of the city’s population don’t have access to a reliable, affordable food source. Too many Philadelphia residents have to skip meals or seek out assistance to to keep food on the table.

To address this need, Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities is partnering with Drexel’s Center for Hospitality & Sport Management, the Vetri Community Partnership, Giant Food Stores, and many others to open the EAT Café. Standing for “Everyone At the Table,” the EAT Café will be a location for anyone of any means to have a quality meal. Additionally, the Café, located at 3820 Lancaster Ave., is the first of its kind to have the backing of a higher education institution.

“Opening Oct. 26, the EAT Café is designed to be a place at a cross-roads of the community.  A place where anyone can feel comfortable and welcome to enjoy a meal, no matter their ability to pay for it,” said Victoria Egan, deputy director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, which is part of Dornsife School of Public Health. “Too often, programs that serve people who are hungry can be very isolating.  At the EAT Café, we hope to bring people together and create a space for them to connect.”

How it Will Work

Diners coming to the EAT Café will be given a menu with a suggested price.  At the end of their meal, a check will be delivered and each can choose what they pay –  the full amount, more, less or nothing at all.

“For the Café to be a success, the community will have to come together to support each other,” Egan said. “If someone can pay a little extra to help their neighbor, then that means someone else might pay it forward when they’re in need.” 

With the option to pay less than the suggested value of the meal, Egan explained that grants and donations will be essential to operating the restaurant.

“We are thankful to have great partners like Giant Food Stores, Metropolitan Bakery, La Colombe Coffee and others to donate food products to the Café,” Egan said. “These, along with monetary donations from supporters and diners will keep the Café open and able to serve anyone who comes to eat with us.”

“As part of Giant’s commitment to being a responsible retailer and better neighbor in our local communities, we are focused on reducing food waste while supporting efforts to fight hunger,” said Mary St. Ledger Baggett, director of marketing and external communications, Giant Food Stores. “By partnering with EAT Café, we are able to provide safe, consumable perishable items that would otherwise go unsold to help feed our neighbors.”

Initially, the EAT Café will be open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 4:30 to 8 p.m. The goal is to serve 150 people daily. Eventually, the hope is to expand to a traditional Sunday dinner twice a month and eventually institute a lunch service.

The Menu

Donnell Jones-Craven, the Café’s general manager, is planning a three-course menu that will change weekly and feature different cuisines, including Caribbean, Asian, African, Middle Eastern and regional American dishes.

A group shot of the EAT Cafe staff with Marc Vetri.

“Our intention is to expose our customers to various cuisine and food stylings that utilize a broader plant-grain-legume menu along with quality proteins, beverages, and dessert offerings,” he explained.

Daily donations of food will come from Giant and Metropolitan Bakery in Rittenhouse Square for produce and bakery items, respectively.

Additionally, personnel from Drexel’s School of Hospitality and Sport Management will provide key support to the café.

“As a professor, I’m so excited to be involved with a café where guests can be nourished by great food while also being nourished by the energy and passion of our students and faculty,” said Jonathan Deutsch, professor in the Center for Hospitality & Sports Management.

Deutsch believes the experience will be invaluable for his students.

“Rather than cooking a delicious dish for a grade and the instructor’s approval, students will have the opportunity to make a real difference every time they cross through the Cafe’s door,” Deutsch said. “Our students will get immediate feedback not just from their professor or Chef Donnell Jones-Craven, but from people whose opinions matter the most — guests of the café.”

Community Focus 

Most of the Café’s staff was hired from the local neighborhoods, including Mantua, West Powelton and Powelton Village.

Group shot of the Community Advisory Committee.

And while designed to help fight hunger, the Café will become a “go-to place for the community,” according to Jones-Craven and the team. They’ve worked closely with community members to ensure the Café is what the neighborhoods actually want, not just a vision of the Café team.

Along those lines, the plan is to have community-oriented events — including educational and career workshops — as main-stays at the Café. Moreover, Jones-Craven hopes to have live music and even host events on the establishment’s patio.

“My goal is to engage the neighborhoods,” Jones-Craven said. “I want the EAT Café to be a direct conduit that flows in and through the community.”

Just the First

As the first model of its kind to utilize a partnership with a prominent university, the EAT Café is in a unique position. Jones-Craven believes that the University partnership —featuring Marc Vetri, a successful, entrepreneurial chef — is something that can be replicated.

While there is obviously a strong focus on West Philadelphia and the city as a whole, the EAT Café team hopes they are creating a model that can be used in other places.

 “If this is happening for the EAT Café, it can be done in every major city across the country,” Jones-Craven said. “There are many big-name, urban places with universities that can support this. We have the opportunity to change the fabric of communities with this model of partnership, passion and purpose.”

The EAT Cafe will open officially Oct. 26 with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 11 a.m.

Those interested in contributing to the EAT Café can donate at this link.