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The nonprofit restaurant hopes to provide healthy, three-course meals to those with lower incomes, as well as spurring dialogue between people in different socioeconomic and lifestyle situations.

Credit: Remy Haber

West Philadelphia will host the city’s first pay-what-you-can community restaurant this summer.

The EAT (Everyone At the Table) Café will be a nonprofit restaurant that aims to provide a community space where people can share a two or three-course meal, regardless of their ability to pay. The restaurant is scheduled to open in June and will be located at 3820 Lancaster Ave.

The restaurant is a creation by the collaboration with the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the Center for Hospitality and Sport Management at Drexel University, Vetri Community Partnership and the greater West Philadelphia community.

The pay-what-you-can model’s success relies on an intentional customer mix where some individuals may overpay, while others may underpay or not pay at all for the same meal. The cafe will also receive funds by fundraising and grant making.

Jeff Benjamin, the co-founder of the Vetri Community Partnership that empowers children and families to lead healthier lives through fresh food, hopes the EAT Café will bring about communal living as well as communal eating. The dining room will be constructed to allow people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different age demographics and different walks of life to sit together and share a meal.

“I hope it becomes a dialogue starter," Benjamin said. "Food itself doesn’t discriminate. Anyone, at any given time, can come through the doors, whether it’s a student, a professor, a lawyer or someone from trade, it doesn’t really matter because everyone will be eating the same thing. At that moment, you have something in common with the person you are sitting next to.”

Twenty-two percent of Philadelphians are food insecure, meaning they lack access to enough food for a healthy, active life, a 2013 Philly article reported. That is the highest rate of food insecurity across the whole state. The EAT Café addresses food insecurity by providing families and individuals experiencing hunger with a safe place to have a healthy meal.

Food insecurity is also correlated with poor health. According to a Philadelphia Inquirer article from December 2015, hungry people are at a higher risk for chronic illness, 30 percent more likely to be hospitalized and twice as likely to need mental health services.

Donnell Jones-Craven, the general manager and chef of the EAT Café, ardently embraces the notion of community. Jones, who came to Philadelphia from Atlanta, is a culinary and hospitality professional with more than 25 years of experience in the food industry. Donnell has previously worked at Emory Healthcare, Darden Restaurants, Compass Group USA and Dennis Dean Catering.

“I have a sense of obligation to help where I can and whenever I can,” he said. “This is a great opportunity, with my background, my passion and my love for people to facilitate some change in the community that definitely deserves it.”

The EAT Café will have a changing daily menu consisting of a three-course meal, which includes a soup or salad, a main course and a dessert. There will also be vegetarian and gluten-free options. The restaurant will receive donations from Giant Grocery, Metropolitan Bakery and La Colombe.

Jones will focus on using more vegetables in the dishes similarly to how most countries around the world eat, where people consume one or two proteins a week.

“I knew from my previous work experiences, how to take a little something and if you add some produce and good seasoning, you can make a lot of high quality meals out of the scarcity of available resources," he said.

By using volunteers, creating relationships with local organizations and allowing community members to pay it forward for their fellow neighbors, the cafe‘s managers hope to build a community.

Running a nonprofit pay-what-you-can restaurant provides the challenge of bringing in enough guests who can pay full price, which offsets the costs of the reduced-price meals. Jones expects the cafe to create a space where people with more resources can participate in a meaningful community experience by giving healthy food to their neighbors with lower incomes.

Jessica Chen, co-founder of the Healthy Food Truck Initiative, said EAT Café is a great idea and is looking forward to supporting a restaurant that improves healthy food options in Philadelphia.

“I think it is great how they are using food as a mechanism for bringing a community together,” she said. “EAT Café also serves as a signal that there is a demand for healthy food and it addresses the food swamps that have been historically in West Philadelphia."

There are 40 pay-what-you-can restaurants across the United States and Europe, including Jon Bon Jovi’s restaurant JBJ Soul Kitchen, where the menu items have no prices and patrons can pay what they can or volunteer in the restaurant in order to pay for their meals.

“We look forward to changing the tide,” Jones said. “It is going to be slow at first, but after a couple months or a year we hope to see people start to embrace not just the cafe but to also embrace the community by way of food.”

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