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Paying It Forward at the EAT Café

A mix of people enjoy a meal, pay what they can – or not at all

Interior of the EAT Cafe

June 14, 2017

Everyone Is Welcome

EAT Café’s name is an acronym for “Everyone at the Table,” and it offers a healthy star-rated meal to anyone regardless of their ability to pay. 

“We don’t know if you’re going to pay or not, so you’re treated like somebody (who’s) gonna give us $500 versus if you’re going to give us nothing,” says cook Derek Wilks. “You can sit down and dine with dignity – and you get a delicious meal.” 

Diners can come in without a cent in their pocket and eat for free; those with extra cash are encouraged to pay the suggested price of $15 for a three-course meal, and leave a little extra money to cover the meals of those who have little or no money, helping to keep the restaurant afloat. 

The café is the result of a partnership among several organizations led by the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at the Dornsife School of Public Health. Seed funding came from the Leo and Peggy Pierce Family Foundation. Additional partners helped develop and launch the concept, including Greensgrow Farms, the People’s Emergency Center, the Vetri Community Partnership, andDrexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sports Management, along with anti-hunger groups in the city. A community advisory board of local residents, teachers and leadership was also convened.   

Photo: Myron Hyman proposes to his girlfriend in the EAT Cafe

On an unseasonably warm February afternoon, Myron Hyman II was nervous as he stood in a crowd of familiar folks, whose boisterous voices crashed like waves around him.

The friendly, noisy chatter at EAT Café in West Philadelphia was of Hyman’s own doing. The very large crowd had been invited to this small 35-seat restaurant for a big surprise: “I’m about to propose to my girlfriend,” he said softly. 

Zahra Diallo, his girlfriend of six months, was just a short distance away near a table where some of her family members were waiting to order. She had arrived expecting to celebrate her acceptance into the doctoral program in counseling and psychology at Howard University in Washington, DC. 

She was stunned when Hyman went down on one knee.

The two met last year at a “pro-black” event in Malcolm X Park in West Philadelphia, Hyman says, and came to EAT Café on one of their first dates, dining at a corner table in the front room of the restaurant.

Hyman, co-founder of an organization aimed at black self-help and empowerment had returned because of the idea behind the restaurant: 

“The concept ‘pay what you can,’ I thought that was noble,” he said. 

It is modeled on an idea that’s caught on around the nation – to create a community-based, nonprofit, pay-what-you-can eating spot. The community café movement got started in 2003, launched by a woman who wanted to make meals affordable for the struggling patrons of her small restaurant in Salt Lake City, UT. From that, the One World Everybody Eats organization was formed, and now has more than 60 cafes in its network.  

"Dorothea Cole, who comes once or twice a week, says she likes the feel of the place.

“I didn’t like how people who are very wealthy when they think about hunger they don’t want to engage with regular people who are experiencing that,” says Professor Mariana Chilton, PhD, MPH, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, who got the café started. “And God forbid they eat the same food. … I wanted to break down that false barrier, and I thought that the best place to do that would be in the community café.” 

Great Concept – Great Food

EAT Café attracts a multiracial mix of people from varied backgrounds – Drexel students, parents and children, couples, retirees, workers. They come from all over, as close as the Mantua and Powelton neighborhood near where the café is located at 3820 Lancaster Ave., and as far away as Delaware County and other suburban towns. 

Some diners say they first came to support a restaurant and a concept they believed in. They keep coming, they say, because of the quality of the food and the warmth of the people who work there.  

"It’s good to be able to pay it forward.""
- Katherine Clayton

“I am a food connoisseur and I think the food is just delicious,” says Julie Rainbow of Germantown. “They seem to have a range from vegetarian to meat dishes so they can accommodate different preferences.” 

Dorothea Cole, who comes once or twice a week, says she likes the feel of the place: “It’s like home, like family when you come in here. And the food is great.” 

“It’s good to be able to pay it forward,” says Katherine Clayton, a teacher who volunteers as a Big Sister, who stopped by for the first time recently after work. “It’s nice, any chance you can get to pay it forward.” 

The first few months after EAT opened in October were slow going, but the number of patrons has picked up. Chilton notes that once people understand the concept, they keep coming back. She says about a third of diners pay below the suggested price or nothing at all, while the remaining two-thirds pay the $15 suggested price, or more to support the café.  

Recently, a couple from Northeast Philadelphia sat in their SUV with their dog Ivy for about 15 minutes waiting for EAT to open. This was their first visit, and they had come for a specific reason: They wanted to support what they considered an African-American owned restaurant.  

"Riana Anderson loves the idea behind the café so much that she volunteers as a waiter.

Along with the chef, the restaurant’s waiters are African American, as well as the cooks in the kitchen who work behind a low wall that gives diners a view of the food being prepared. All are paid employees, but only the chef is full time. Tipping is not allowed. 

The Community Lends a Hand 

Diners have done more than just support the restaurant by ordering meals. A tabletop water fountain on the hostess desk was donated by a community member, and another diner was setting up a new phone system. The food and produce are donated by a local bakery, grocery store, church, urban gardens, as well as purchased from vendors. 

The restaurant has received funding and other financial assistance from the Pierce Family Foundation, the Francis Fund (set up by Project HOME in honor of Pope Francis’ 2015 visit to Philadelphia), an anonymous donor, along with online donations.  

"Even for those people who cannot pay, the waiters try to make them feel comfortable and not embarrassed."
- Racquel Williams.

Chilton says supporters are tweaking the restaurant model to attract more patrons. Lunch and Sunday brunch will be added this summer. More cultural events, group meetings and advertising, along with better clarity about the concept, are also planned. They also want to get a handle on fiscal management: “It’s quite a challenge to run a nonprofit restaurant and have a full-throttle staff that makes a living wage,” she says. 

Some small groups have chosen EAT as a meeting place. Ashley Sonson was there recently for a meeting with others from the violence-intervention program Healing Hurt People (an initiative of the Drexel College of Medicine, led by John Rich and Ted Corbin, both physicians and faculty members at the Dornsife school). Seeking community input was a plus for EAT and its concept, says Sonson, who works with an arm of the program out of nearby Penn Presbyterian Medical Center. 

“In the area there is a lot of food insecurity and food deserts,” she says. “To have the community say this is what they really want and to have it become a reality is a pretty cool idea. Instead of going to Wawa and grabbing a hoagie, you can come and sit down with people and know that you’re supporting this concept.”  

"Instead of going to Wawa and grabbing a hoagie, you can come and sit down with people and know that you’re supporting this concept."
- Ashley Sonson

No one except the waiters knows who pays and who does not. Even for those people who cannot pay, the waiters try to make them feel comfortable and not embarrassed, says waiter Racquel Williams, a recent high school graduate who’s attending the Community College of Philadelphia. 

“We had this one young lady, she was afraid to get up ‘cause she was so new to the concept,” says Williams. “She didn’t have any money. She was going through a rough time in her life and she explained it all to me. … I’m like ‘That’s perfectly fine. You don’t have to explain why.’ We understand everybody’s situation.” 

Riana Anderson loves the idea behind the café so much that she volunteers as a waiter, something she also did at a similar café when she lived in Atlanta more than 10 years ago. “I’m a clinical psychologist and I do work on poverty and racism, so I think that dealing with very basic needs like ‘Can you eat a meal’ is like dismantling the system of poverty and racism at its core,” she says. “So I’m here for it.” 

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