Matso Baatarkhuu, 28, moved to the United States from Mongolia this fall on a scholarship to study creative writing at Temple University. He’s new to this country – but, due to a gap in the disbursement of his stipend, he encountered a phenomenon deeply familiar to impoverished Americans: end-of-the-month hunger pangs.
He was lucky, though. He stumbled upon EAT Cafe, a special kind of restaurant where customers pay only what they can afford.
“I was about to starve and this place saved my life,” said Baatarkhuu, who’s dined there several times since it opened in late October in the city’s Mantua section. “It’s not just that it’s this pay-what-you-can model, but they also have great, respectful service. They really take care of you.”
More than two years in the making, Philadelphia’s first nonprofit “community cafe,” as they are often known, is finally open. A venture of Drexel University, with support from Vetri Community Partnership, Giant Food Stores, and others, EAT Cafe – short for “Everyone at the Table” – serves dinner four days a week, for a suggested $15.
Mariana Chilton, who heads Drexel’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, first encountered the concept in Brazil and later in Denver. She decided to adapt the idea, with a twist.
“There are about 50 cafes like this across the country, but most of them are cafeteria-style and tend to be in church basements. Ours is a full-service restaurant, serving a three-course meal,” she said. “I wanted to make sure this would not be confused with a soup kitchen. It sets the stage for a place where all different kinds of people would want to meet up and intermingle.”
General manager Donnell Jones-Craven hopes it will be a model for a new breed of restaurants serving locals of all income levels. But first, he’ll have to make this one sustainable.
Last Thursday, a half-dozen staffers prepared for dinner service, adding water to jam jars of chrysanthemums on each table in the 30-seat dining room and stocking cooking stations in the open kitchen. Because customers choose their own price, there’s a no-tipping policy. Instead, all staffers make a flat hourly wage.
Jones-Craven bounded downstairs, through the prep kitchen, into his office. On the wall is a vision board he made last summer, filled with photos and logos representing supporters like Metropolitan Bakery, which donates bread for each meal, served in generous slices with ramekins of seasoned olive oil, and La Colombe, which provides discounted coffee.
Jones-Craven aspires to get 60 percent of his ingredients donated. His target $3.25-per-meal food cost, he said, “is a hard feat to do in three courses.”
The menu changes weekly, wandering from Caribbean to Tex-Mex to Thai, in response to donations like the 30 pounds of green tomatoes he received from the Drexel Urban Growers garden.
Jones-Craven decided to slice, bread, and fry them, and incorporate them into a soul food-inspired menu for the week. A sample meal: A green salad with steamed kale, blue cheese, and dried cranberries; an entree of ginger-glazed fried chicken with mac-and-cheese, fried green tomatoes, and roasted vegetables; and apple cobbler for dessert.
Jones-Craven comes from a corporate and catering background, and the food resembles what you might find in a high-end company cafeteria, more neighborhood eatery than destination restaurant. He likes to shift the protein from the center of the plate to one side – a subtle nudge toward plant-based dining.
“We’re trying to change how people relate to food,” he said.
But it’s slow going.
At 4:30 p.m., a staffer unlocked the front door, but no one was there. A target is 130 meals a night. EAT Cafe served just 125 meals in its first week. Getting the word out through community groups, and getting a larger sign on the window, are both on Jones-Craven’s to-do list.
By 5 p.m. Thursday, there was just one diner. That was Michael DiLucca, 22, in a Drexel Rowing windbreaker. He said curiosity, more than hunger, had drawn him in for an early solo dinner.
“My expectations were pretty low. I was extremely surprised by how nice it looks in here,” he said.
He thinks fellow students will gravitate to the cafe soon enough.
“I have friends who refuse to ever go out to eat. They even try to find student body meetings that have free food,” he said. “So if I can get them to come here, we can have a good time.”
By 7 p.m., a few more diners had arrived. John Lindsay, who lives next door, stopped in for soup and salad. He pledged to return with a load of turnips from the Wyota Street Community Garden nearby.
There was Sydney Coffin, 47, a teacher at Edison High School, killing time during a three-hour wait at the emergency room at Presbyterian Hospital.
“I was talking to a homeless guy in the waiting room there. I’m going to tell him about this place,” Coffin said.
And Tim Perdue, 24, a recent Drexel grad who works at an architecture firm, who said he liked the food and the idea of dining for a cause. “I realize how many people can’t pay, so people paying it forward can offset that,” he said.
Most community cafes lose money, Chilton said. The Leo and Peggy Pierce Foundation seeded the enterprise, and Chilton expects it will rely on grants for three years. Hopefully, it will be self-sustaining after that. Drexel calculates each diner must pay an average of $15 to achieve that.
It will be a complex experiment in economics. Jones-Craven hopes at least 80 percent of customers will pay some amount. He emphasizes to them that it’s pay-what-you-can, not free.
Last Wednesday, the average payment was $13.62, he said. “But Thursday and Friday were not too profitable. We had customers come in, and they gave us what they had. A grad student came and he was a little embarrassed, but he pulled out a bunch of change from his pocket. That’s fine.”
The concept of fighting hunger with hospitality has already been in practice in Philadelphia, at places like the Broad Street Ministry, where meals are served to guests by volunteer waitstaff.
EAT Cafe, Chilton emphasized, is not that. It does not provide wraparound services or referrals. There is no research component to this work.
“It’s not going to reduce food insecurity in this neighborhood. It’s not going to end hunger in the [Mantua] Promise Zone,” Chilton said. “This is about creating a good feeling in the community. There’s a lot of shame and isolation that goes along with the experience of hunger. This is an opportunity to help people feel included.”
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EAT Cafe, 3820 Lancaster Ave., Philadelphia, 267-292-2768, eatcafe.org, 4:30-8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday.