Philly's first pay-what-you-can restaurant went viral. Then what?

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From left, Shirley Morrison, LaRissa Miller, Cynthia Taylor, and Rhonda Washington enjoy dinner at EAT Cafe.

After all the publicity around Philadelphia’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant, EAT Cafe, hundreds of people went to the Powelton Village eatery to see it for themselves. 

“A guy who’d been living on the street heard about it and he said he didn’t believe it. He walked 30 blocks to check it out,” said Mariana Chilton, director of Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities and  founder of the restaurant. “He was amazed that it was real.”

But six months after opening EAT Cafe, where a three-course meal is served at a suggested price of $15, they’re still explaining the pay-anything-or-nothing concept to people, convincing them that it’s real. 

It's an idea with resonance: A single Philly.com story on the cafe -- run by Drexel in collaboration with Vetri Community Partnership -- was shared more than 150,000 times on Facebook and was read by close to half a million people. But that hasn’t necessarily translated into a sustained increase in diners.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
A poster in the window explains the cafe’s pricing policy. But, the one-of-a-kind city eatery lacks an exterior sign.

When the restaurant opened, the goal was to host 130 customers a night. Right now, the restaurant averages 35 or 40 meals nightly. The managers recently cut back dinner service to three nights per week.

Still, Chilton said it’s successful in the ways that matter to her.

“We hit the sweet spot in terms of our patrons: people who don’t pay, people who pay a little, people who pay the full price or more,” she said. “Our clientele is so diverse.”

But she acknowledged a need to retool.

In June, EAT Cafe will add lunch service and patio seating to attract a new customer base.

Beyond that, she said, “We need a lot of things to get it to the point of sustainability.” More corporate donors to join La Colombe, Metropolitan Bakery, and Giant. More private party bookings. More grants. More paying customers. “It’s a massive group effort.”

Camera icon charles fox / Staff Photographer
Chef Donnell Jones-Craven plates pasta at EAT Cafe.

Educating potential customers remains a slow, even one-to-one, process. There's even a poster in the window explaining to passersby how a pay-what-you-can restaurant works (though a sign for EAT Cafe itself, other than a small, cardboard one hanging on the front door, has yet to be installed). 

On social media, some readers complained the restaurant seemed out of their price range. They said they’d rather have a $5 meal they could afford than eat a $15 meal that felt like a handout. To pay less than the suggested price, they thought, would feel shameful. 

Camera icon CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
The vegetable pesto lasagna at EAT Café.

Callalilly Cousar, 87, who is part of a community advisory board for the cafe, said she had spent the last six months trying to explain the place to her friends and neighbors in East Parkside.

“Some people didn’t understand the concept,” she said. “Some of them thought it was like a soup kitchen or whatever. But I’ve taken several people there myself who were thinking that, and they found out it was nothing like that.”

But once they go, they get it, Cousar said. She loves the food, the ambience, and the sense that everyone is equal here, no matter what’s in their wallets. The menu changes every week or two; recently, it was Italian-focused, so options included a caprese salad, minestrone, and vegetarian pesto lasagna.

“Nobody knows if you’re paying or what you’re paying. To me, that means a lot,” she said. “You don’t have to be embarrassed.”

Last Friday night, the front dining room started to fill up around 6:30 p.m. A group of colleagues from Penn Presbyterian were holding a graduation party for a social-work intern at the front table. A four-top of recent college graduates who live in the neighborhood sat down for a meal. 

At a table by himself, freelance illustrator Adriano Moraes, 40, of West Philadelphia, sketched the scene (including a portrait of a reporter) as he sipped his coffee. He said he comes for the food and the atmosphere, but at times the pay-what-you-can model can be a great help. 

"As a freelancer, sometimes you struggle a bit, or they can take too long to pay. My income is kind of a roller coaster," he said. But regardless, he knows where to find a solid meal.

Dinner at @theeatcafe @liveart @restaurant @peopleeating @awesomefood @iapprovethis message

A post shared by adriano moraes (@thelastadriano) on

Often, the restaurant’s books can serve as a rough gauge for the financial solvency of its customers.

Chef and general manager Donnell Jones-Craven said that, on a recent week, three-quarters of diners paid the full suggested price, or even more. Other weeks, the check total reflects leaner times.

“We have regular customers who may dine here three or four times a month, and at the beginning of the month they have the ability to pay, but in the middle or at the end of the month they may not. Then, when they come back again, they take care of business, if you will -- maybe pay for this visit, and also some extra,” he said.  

He said ending Saturday dinner service was a tough call. (It's now open 4:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday to Friday) He had wanted to stay open in case anyone was hungry. But he expects a lunchtime menu of salads, soups, and sandwiches to sell briskly. 

For now, his staff is getting extra training, including spending time learning the steps of service at Osteria, said Jeff Benjamin, chief operating officer at Vetri restaurants and a founder of Vetri Community Partnerships.

Benjamin suggested there may be other ways to expand the cafe’s income and outreach, maybe through events like chef nights and cooking classes.

“I would love to see us figure out other ways to subsidize it so it doesn’t rely on foot traffic,” he said. After all, he said, at EAT Cafe the bottom line isn't so much the number of customers that come through, but the quality of the experience. “In that environment, it’s not just about the revenue.”

EAT Cafe: 3820 Lancaster Ave., 267-292-2768, eatcafe.org

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