What If They Don’t Pay?

This is Day 10 in a month-long series of posts about the work I do, owning and operating a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, I invite you to visit the website or find us on Facebook


In the One World Everybody Eats model, there are volunteer options available for those who are unable for whatever reason to pay for their lunch.

We don’t offer that at Common Ground, mostly because we’re a one-and-a-half person shop, and wrangling volunteers is a job unto itself, one for which I haven’t exactly had time.

I’m also not sure it’s anything I want to do. There are only so many barters I can do, after all, before I have insufficient cash flow to buy next week’s groceries. We’re a commercial enterprise, not a not-for-profit, so our meals aren’t subsidized by grants or other financial assistance. This week’s customers pay for next week’s groceries.

We do have one person who receives free meals in exchange for taking care of our weekly laundry. (We use cloth napkins and placemats and tablecloths, so we generate a substantial amount of laundry.) And we do other exchanges on an ad hoc basis, when, for instance, someone brings in produce from their garden. There is also an organic produce buying club sharing space with us, and we’ll often swap a lunch for a bag of potatoes and a few onions.

But for the most part, people who come for lunch at the cafe are expected to pay.

If they ask how much the meal is — and they usually do on their first visit — I will quote a range, generally between $5 and $10, noting that we have customers who pay less, and others who pay more. Pay-what-you-can is an unfamiliar concept to many people, and by offering a price range I’m attempting to ease uncertainty over what is expected.

When Wendy ran the business, she often wouldn’t offer a price range. If people asked what they should pay, she would tell them to pay what they felt the meal was worth. Some handed her $20, and she thanked them. Some gave her $3, and she thanked them. Sometimes an individual payment would not cover the cost of the ingredients on the plate. But the next payment would often make up the shortfall. And things would average out over the day.

As they do with us.

Only once in this first year did I have someone come in and eat and leave without offering any payment at all. And I suspect he confused us for the shelter across the street that offers free meals to people in need.

Every restaurant that doesn’t require you to order and pay at a counter before you get your food has to deal with the possibility of people leaving without paying. Because pay-what-you-can involves a more personal exchange than a conventional, fixed-price restaurant, it could very well be that restaurants with a pay-what-you-can policy actually see less dining-and-dashing than other establishments.

I’d love to see data. Maybe someone will do a survey.

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