Not Utopia, Alas

This is Day 7 of a month of posts about how I found myself the owner of a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, visit the website or find us on Facebook

Before Common Ground I ran another cafe, located in the local public library. When I was preparing to open it, back in 2011, a friend of mine — another Wendy, in fact — sent me information on the One World Everybody Eats foundation, which offers resources for starting and running a cafe based on the pay-what-you-can model.

It was inspiring. I could see how it might work. But not in my little town.

Maybe someplace more… enlightened.

Someplace where the people understood the structural imbalances that led to inequality, to food deserts, to food policies that created both great waste and lack of access.

I had no idea that the concept had already been brought to life right down the road, where a couple I had yet to meet had been serving meals on a pay-what-you-can basis for over a year.

The café at the food co-op was not part of the One World organization. It was launched as a singular space, by a couple who owned a small farm and wanted to help boost the financial viability of the grocery that was providing them a place to sell their vegetables.

The co-op, in turn, had been started by another couple who had come to the area to work as service volunteers for the organization next door, the one that owned the building that would become the co-op. The one at which I had been a volunteer nearly 20 years ago.

Relationships. Confluences and circumstances.

Every situation is different. Every situation has its own history, its own fabric, woven over time.

The café started at the co-op by my friends Wendy and Matt was probably one of the first to operate on a pay-what-you-can model as a commercial undertaking. Every other one has been a not-for-profit, where founders might work for years before taking a salary. The café at the co-op paid Wendy and Matt right from the start.

It didn’t pay them a lot. And it doesn’t pay me a lot. But it is profitable. Which is pretty astonishing, really.

Counter-intuitive, even.

When people first hear of the pay-what-you-can concept, they tend to have one of two reactions. They will think it’s lovely but utopian, unworkable in the real world (until you show them otherwise), or they will simply think it’s dumb.

Our customers come from the first group. So did I.

I’m partial to folks who flirt with utopia.

But there is nothing utopian about profitability. You either are or you aren’t. Your situation either supports what you’re attempting to do, or it doesn’t.

The co-op café launched within a supportive structure; it had community built right in. And it operated within a grocery store that carried a full inventory of fresh local and organic produce, bulk grains, beans, herbs, spices, flour. The café didn’t have to go out and find suppliers for its ingredients, it simply bought them from the co-op. Those factors gave it a fighting chance, even with its utopian idea that people entrusted to pay what they can for a meal will, indeed, pay.

For five years they made a go of it at the co-op. And then the co-op closed, and the cafe moved, and things changed.

There is more to say about pay-what-you-can, and I’ll probably revisit the subject in a future post, where I can share some of the working realities of building a business on this model. As I said in the post that started this series, all of this is a work in progress.

Which means it’s not utopia, alas. It’s work.