4 Restaurants That Let Guests Pay What They Want

by  Lindsay Silberman | Sep 3, 2014
Kid in restaurant
Kid in restaurant / Rawpixel/iStock

We're a fan of pay-as-you wish restaurants, both as a way to avoid marked-up prices and as a chance to give back to the destinations on our travels. Here's how it works: nonprofit restaurants encourage customers to pay for their meal based on what they're able to afford, and/or give free meals in exchange for volunteer work at the restaurant. For travelers who do have a meal budget, it's nice to know that our dollars are going toward establishments that provide resources and job training for the local community, and you can always take it a step further by volunteering as well has making monetary donations if you have the time and desire (free meals are meant for those who really can't afford to pay). A number of establishments in the U.S. have successfully adopted this model. Here are four across the country to check out the next time you hit the road.

One Bistro (Ohio)
One Bistro -- whose name stands for "our neighbors eat" -- provides a $6-$9 suggested price for meals. But its guests have four payment options: 1) spend what you can afford; 2) pay the suggested price; 3) pay the suggested price plus extra to help feed someone else; and 4) pay by volunteering. Guests can pitch in to pay for a meal by taking orders, cleaning, restocking, and setting tables. The menu features classic brunch items like strawberry french toast and eggs with herb-roasted potatoes, plus bistro-style fare like reuben sandwiches and grilled cheese.

Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen (New Jersey)
Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey is a testament to the singer’s devotion to his Garden State roots -- and his dedication to ending hunger. The restaurant, opened in February 2014, suggests an average donation of $10 to cover the cost of one meal, but encourages larger donations as a way to offset the cost of a meal for someone who can’t afford it. Considering that each meal consists of three courses, starting with a soup or salad followed by an entree and dessert, this is more than fair. The American Regional style menu is constantly changing, but sample items include slow cooked pork stew and turkey sliders. Volunteer bussers, dishwashers, and waiters are always appreciated.

Panera Cares (Portland, Boston, St. Louis, Chicago, and more)
In 2010, Panera Bread opened its first Panera Cares outpost in Clayton, Missouri. The cafe’s “pay what you want” nonprofit model means that there are no prices listed on the menu. Instead, “suggested donation” amounts are provided alongside donation bins, allowing customers to give based on what they can afford. And for those who aren’t able to make monetary contributions, the company encourages patrons to donate their time by volunteering to work for an hour at the restaurant in exchange for a meal. The Panera Cares locations have the same menu options as standard Panera restaurants -- like salads, soups, and sandwiches -- and also offer free WiFi.

SAME Cafe (Denver)
At SAME Cafe in Denver, guests can indulge in a variety of dishes prepared with local, organic ingredients, like bacon, date, and bleu cheese pizza or white bean and kale salad. You're only expected to contribute what you can afford -- SAME stands for “so all may eat,” and the restaurant prides itself on having a donation box in lieu of a cash register. Patrons can also volunteer at the restaurant in exchange for a meal; SAME looks for help in prepping food, cooking, serving, and doing maintenance work.

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