Loose Nonprofit Network Feeds Hungry, Testing Business Models

On-the-job training is a standard in the restaurant business. The challenge for Jeff Williams at the Taste Project, a nonprofit restaurant in Fort Worth, Texas, is that 80 percent of those working on a day-to-day basis are volunteers.

Chuck Briant has volunteered 266 hours at the Taste Project in Fort Worth, Texas, a pay-what-you-can restaurant.

The gauntlet is “retraining 30 to 40 percent of the staff every day,” he said. Taste Project is a pay-what-you-can operation. The first meals were served on Thanksgiving Day 2017 with an official opening a few weeks later on Dec. 5. The restaurant serves roughly 85 meals a day, having topped out at 166.

There are three levels of patrons: those in need who pay $5 or $6, the standard rate of between $15 and $16 per meal and those who “pay it forward” and spend between $22 and $25, subsidizing those who can’t pay a market rate, Williams explained.

There’s also competition. The Taste Project is just south of downtown Fort Worth in the hospital district, home to 20 other restaurants. Yes, there is snooping to see what the others charge for a meal. “If we’re not competitive for the people to come in and pay $25, it would be hard to do what we do,” said Williams.

Taste Project is one of between 60 and 70 other restaurants that are part of a network of such food establishments and in many cases succeeding where for-profit restaurants have failed at the concept. The One World Everybody Eats network is a loose amalgam of these restaurants, which range from sit-down restaurants with menus, to those open a few days a week with a limited offering, to food trucks.

There are many more such sites not part of the network and data on the sector is scarce. The restaurants tend to be small and not required to file the federal Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service. A search by Guide-Star.org of its database found that just 15 food services filed a Form 990 EZ and 12 filed a Form 990 N.

The daily menu at SAME Café in Denver.

The restaurant that started the network, in Salt Lake City in 2003, closed in 2012. One World Everybody Eats network was launched by the founder of that restaurant, Denise Cerreta. She received the 2017 James Beard Foundation Humanitarian of the Year award. Cerreta referred questions about the network to board members.

For-profits have tried and mostly failed at the concept. Panera at one point had five such restaurants and the lone one left standing is in Boston. The $799 billion spent on dining out each year, as reported by the National Restaurant Association (NRA), seems like a lot of money. Yet, 70 percent of the lucky ones that make it past the first year are gone by age five. According to the organization Restaurant Brokers, 90 percent of independent eateries close during their first year.

Unlike the for-profits, the pay-what-you-can nonprofits have not really quantified successes and failures. Tommy Brown, a board member of One World Everybody Eats, is the volunteer coordinator at F.A.R.M. Café (Feed All Regardless of Means) in Boone, N.C., where he’s also an adjunct instructor for sustainable development and recreation management at Appalachian State University.

In Boone, the suggested price is $10 for a lunch of soup, entrée, side dish, dessert and drink. There are also suggested levels of $15 and $20. At least 80 percent of patrons pay the suggested rate or more with 20 percent volunteering time to pay for the meal, said Brown.

While some programs around the country are tied to religious organizations, F.A.R.M. Café is not, although Brown is also an ordained Presbyterian minister. “This is a university town conscious of not taking down a barrier and putting up another,” he said.

Brown said the network is just starting to develop data. “It’s a goal. We’ve not been at that point yet. It’s a loose affiliation of cafes networked together. We know we need to do this,” he said.

One starting point is the annual conference, to be held this month in New Orleans, La., where 100 attendees are expected, Brown said. One of the speakers, in a return engagement, is Robert Egger, who started nonprofit kitchen operations in Washington, D.C. and in Los Angeles. The D.C. Central Kitchen remains open.

Even those statistics are scarce. Egger said that the pay-what-you-can organizations that succeed do so because of “deeply loyal people into the experience.” While there are sites in larger cities such as Philadelphia, Phoenix and Louisville, those making it are in smaller communities. For example, in New York, the three network restaurants are in Beacon, Troy and Patchogue, not Manhattan.

Some pay-what-you-can operations come and go quickly, such as college students in New Jersey running a food truck but have since graduated and moved on.

Volunteers Julie Kramer and Diane Nguyen has donated a combined 540 hours at the Taste project.

“There have to be just enough people, educated and employed who get the broader mission,” said Egger. While a such an operation might not work in Beverly Hills, the town does need resources. There are some locations that are just too small or poor to sustain pay what you can, he said.

All of the restaurants attack food insecurity and food sovereignty but do it with a twist. It’s not as if you are walking into a chain restaurant and seeing the same menu in Des Moines, Idaho, as in Portland, Ore. Some are strictly feed the needy. Some restaurants are also training organizations and others are being developed into central points in communities. Few can do it without help from foundations and direct fundraising.

That puts the SAME Café in Denver, Colo., in an enviable position. SAME Café is the oldest member of the One World Everybody Eats network. It opened in 2006 and never puts a price on a menu.

“It’s an amazing nonprofit model not an amazing business mode,” said Brad Allen Reubendale, executive director of SAME Café. He’s been with the organization about 18 months, taking over from the founders. At that point 40 percent of revenue was from food sales and the rest from fundraising, he explained. It seems as if it was operating at a loss. “You’re marketing on two different levels, people’s needs and mission,” he said.

The menu includes two choices of a soup, salad entrée and dessert. “Dignity often is about choice that comes with money,” said Reubendale. “Everyone is treated exactly the same. It’s building community and using the restaurant to do that,” he said. The idea is to have a “warm community space” that seats bankers next to those in need.

A life can financially go off the rails pretty quickly. The mix in Denver right now is 75 percent in need and 25 percent giving back to the mission of SAME Café, according to Reubendale.

Getting the food is “a kind of a loose network of partnerships,” Reubendale said. They locally source been 80 to 90 of food from local farms and gardens and 15 major partnerships. For example, when tomato season is in full swing, there are more tomatoes than anyone can use. The organization takes the abundance, stabilizes it for the winter, and has product year-round.

In Fort Worth, the food is locally sourced when available. The organization also contracts with a large food distribution firm. Both the Taste Project and SAME Café also plan food trucks and in the case of SAME Café, a potential additional location.

Getting good data is important going forward, said Brown. “How do we learn from this? We are in the experimentation phase with this movement,” he said. Outcomes need to be quantified.

Business models and community are what will keep the restaurants running. But, the food and respect for others is the draw. “People have gotten to know what to expect when they come in here,” said Williams.