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But not that simple. Brad's particularly proud of one soup he concocted. "Apple bacon tomato," he says. "The sweetness of the apple, the smokiness of the bacon. It had this great contrast to it."


I'm standing at the counter holding the sharpest knife I can find, trying to chop a fig. I tell the other volunteer, Era Strelnikova, that I have never seen a whole dried fig before. She's shocked.

"Really?" she says. "I can't believe that. They're so good."

SAME serves an estimated 15,000 customers a year.
SAME serves an estimated 15,000 customers a year.
People told Brad and Libby Birky that they were crazy to start the pay-what-you-want SAME Cafe, but regulars are crazy about the place.
People told Brad and Libby Birky that they were crazy to start the pay-what-you-want SAME Cafe, but regulars are crazy about the place.

Eventually I figure it out and make long slices in the withered little balls. The figs are for a salad that Strelnikova has devised from ingredients she found in the fridge. Strelnikova lives nearby and helps out at SAME a couple of times a week as a way to indulge her passion for experimenting with food. In real life, she's the head of the economics department at Red Rocks Community College.

I ask what she thinks about the concept of a restaurant without prices. She says that when she tells relatives in Russia about the place, "they all say it has to be a front for some kind of scam. They are certain of it."

She doesn't see any scams at SAME, but she does see an interesting economics lesson. "If you're talking about a regular, neo-classical economic model, at the onset of that there is the assumption that a person is rational, meaning they will not deliberately make themselves worse off. Incentives in the regular neo-classical, free-market economy are always monetary," she says. "There really is no place for reciprocity. And we know now that in reality, people respond not only to monetary incentives, but they also respond to reciprocity. You can't explain giving using free-market theory."

Still, the concept isn't far from the free-market-inspired policies used to reform large-scale public housing in the United States over the past decade. "It's called cross-subsidization," says Karen Lado, who runs the Denver office of Enterprise Community Partners, a national organization that provides financing for affordable-housing projects. Since the mid-'90s, housing authorities across the nation have been tearing down the huge residential towers — you know, the projects — that had concentrated poverty into epicenters of unemployment, crime and drug use. Now governments work with non-profit development corporations to build mixed-income affordable-housing projects, where an individual who pays a relatively high price enables another individual to pay a relatively low price.

The Denver Housing Authority's ongoing redevelopment of Curtis Park, for example, strives for a mix of small rentals, townhomes and houses, some of which are subsidized and others that are rented at market rate. The motivation is both economic and social. "If it looks like public housing, it's stigmatized," Lado points out. "People are more willing to accept mixed housing." But the principle works on the lowest rung of the income ladder, too. In recent years, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has used a complicated system of tax credits and grants to construct several loft projects to house homeless individuals with little or no income. To cover debt payments and other costs such as maintenance, the buildings include nicer, multi-bedroom units for downtown workers who qualify for affordable rent.

By mixing the soup-kitchen crowd with everyday eaters, the Birkys hope to create a similar community. In a way, they want to de-ghettoize food.

They're part of a growing movement. In 2005, Indian diners were delighted to discover a restaurant where you could pay what you want. Similar spots have popped up around the globe: a French bistro in London, a bakery in Ontario, Lentils as Anything in Australia, Der Weiner Deewan in Vienna. One World recently opened pay-what-you-wish restaurants in North Carolina. South Carolina and Spokane. The Terra Bite Lounge, a coffee shop/deli based in the upscale Seattle suburb of Kirkland, also operates on a "voluntary payment system." Customers order their soy lattes and bagel sandwiches and then pay whatever they want. "We don't ask for charity," pronounces Terra's website. "We believe we have better coffee and much better food than the cafe chains. All we ask is that those who can pay what they would elsewhere."

But not every experiment has been successful. The Shell Creek Grill & Wine Bar in Washington experimented with a price-free model last year but closed in December; owners blamed the poor economic conditions. For four years, the upscale Six 89 restaurant in Carbondale offered a "Pay What You Think" night every October, when prices were deleted from the menu and customers asked to pay whatever they thought the meal was worth (drinks and tip not included). But the restaurant gave up on the idea in 2006, after it became clear that diners were confused about overpaying or underpaying.

Marketing researchers in Germany recently published "Pay What You Want: A New Participating Pricing Mechanism," outlining the results of pay-what-you-want experiments in a buffet-style Persian restaurant, a cinema and a delicatessen. (It cost me $22 to buy the study online; personally, I would've rather paid more like $7.) During the study period, revenues at the cinema fell, which the researchers attributed to a customer perception that the movies were already overpriced. The average payment at the buffet went down slightly, but the owner ended up making a larger profit because volume increased so much. And at the deli, the average payment for drinks actually rose. This could have been because of the relatively low cost of beverages, but the researchers also pointed to the high amount of face-to-face contact that the deli owner had with his customers. This, they suggested, contributed to positive feelings toward the cafe, and customers didn't want to shortchange someone they'd built a relationship with. "By implementing PWYW, the seller can demonstrate to consumers that he or she believes in the quality of the products because lower prices can compensate for inferior quality," the researchers wrote. "It may also increase the chance of word of mouth and build up a positive pricing image among consumers."

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