What if there was a restaurant where there was $0 on the menu, your meal was a gift from someone who came before you, and to keep the chain of giving alive you pay it forward? Karma Kitchen is a volunteer run restaurant incorporating the gift economy model. Your food is served as a genuine labor of love and invites guests to participate in the circle of giving.
Karma Kitchen Berkeley, CA
May 22, 2020
Please explain what inspired the Karma Kitchen concept.
Karma Kitchen was inspired by a restaurant in India called Seva Cafe. What if there was a restaurant where there was $0 on the menu, your meal was a gift from someone who came before you, and to keep the chain of giving alive you pay it forward? You don’t pay it back, there's no one to pay it back to, you don’t even know who gifted you the meal.
A group of volunteers were having a conversation and this idea came forward so they decided to try it out. After, in California a group of volunteers decided to host it as Karma Kitchen, a pay it forward pop up restaurant experiment held once a week or month.
Karma Kitchen menu Brooklyn, NY
What does it mean to pay it forward and can you explain how it is different from pay as you wish?
Paying it forward is this idea that connects you into a chain of giving. Something has been given to you, you don’t know from who or where so you can’t pay it back. You are just invited to keep the chain of giving going and pay it forward for someone else. It’s this spirit of shifting from transaction, ‘tit for tat’ to a chain of trust and it invites you to experiment with that. Paying it forward it connects you in an invisible way to others. I think that is the core difference between pay it forward and pay as you wish.
Many years ago there was a student at UC Berkeley who came to volunteer at Karma Kitchen. She was studying for a business PhD and was so moved by the experience that she said she wanted to write her thesis about the paying it forward concept. At that time no one was studying this, she completed a seminal paper called “Paying More When Paying for Others.” They compiled research and found that on average people paid more when they were paying for others rather than if they were paying what they wish. I think it was $1 or $2 more on average.
How is value perceived differently when someone is a participant rather than a consumer?
We talk about four shifts in Karma Kitchen:
A shift from transaction to trust, when you go into a restaurant instead of saying “I’m paying this amount so I’m entitled to this food and this quality of food” you shift to “someone has given me this meal, I’m moved from a place of trust and these volunteers are serving me, a doctor, engineer, grandmother who’s waiting my table and washing the dishes.” It kind of brings you into the circle of trust naturally.
In that process it’s also a shift from consumption to contribution. Usually you say what’s in this for me and that’s the same nuance with pay what you can or pay what you want versus pay it forward. If you’re in the mindset of pay what you can you may say “oh this can just be a freebie for me.” If you think it’s just for me then you can take advantage of it, it’s not really priming you to think of the greater whole, it’s just what YOU can. When you’re in a space of paying it forward, you’re suddenly in the circle of trust and you want to contribute to that. There’s a sacred energy that flows through that and you’re naturally moved to contribute to the interconnection that you realize you’re a part of.
Then there’s a shift from isolation to community because in that process instead of thinking about “me, me, me” suddenly you realize that there’s no me without we. The guests and volunteers light up before your eyes, you start to know their stories, because you’re not transacting with them. They’re not just a server, it’s someone that has decided to volunteer on a Sunday in between their busy lives to serve you.
The last shift is from scarcity to abundance, there’s a mentality shift from focusing on what’s in it for me to one where your cup is overflowed and you just want to overflow others cups.
The model is greatly based on trust, are there moments when the cost of the food and space doesn’t get covered? What is done with surplus money?
It’s different for every Karma Kitchen, it’s a grassroots experiment that has been done in so many different cities around the world. Usually the way it starts is that a group of volunteers boot straps the first one. They pay it forward and put together the cost for the first one, usually it starts as a one time experiment. Once in a while, an established Karma Kitchen will offer their surplus to support a new Karma Kitchen.
More often than not, the cost has been more than covered in different ways. Maybe there have been times when it didn’t meet one week but usually if that happens a surplus from a previous week might cover it. We never had to shut down because of the cost at the Karma Kitchen’s that I’ve been a part of, I don’t know about all of them.
It has been beautiful to witness that abundance, to really see the manifestation of scarcity to abundance. It’s not like you’re trying to get a certain amount from anyone. When guests receive the $0 bill, the servers don’t even know how much someone has given because it’s not about measuring.
Surplus is given back to the community in different ways and we use it to support the cost of running — for t-shirts, aprons, and supplies. We have a kindness table with gifts from different people in the community like magazines, CDs, different value based things. We also use it to buy gifts to give away. With any surplus beyond that, we find ways to ‘tag’ people in the community doing worthwhile efforts. If a volunteer, diner, or just someone we meet in the community starts a labor of love initiative we support them with surplus money.
For a period of time we experimented with a ‘Karma Patch.’ There was a volunteer that was really excited about farming so every week he would go to the farmers market and take about $100 to buy a bunch of produce and then set up a table with all the produce to offer to guests. We started to build relationships with the farmers and would use our surplus to tag them with gifts. It has sprinkled throughout the community in different ways to support those intentions of service, the flourishing of kindness, and these values.
Please explain a little more about the kindness table that is offered. Do you buy gifts to giveaway or are they donated?
It’s a mix of both, we have a volunteer in the community that runs a beautiful, high quality, gift economy magazine. He brings a stack of these magazines and leaves it on the kindness table as an offering to the community. Of course when you receive something like that you want to overflow their cup. At times someone will offer something not necessarily promoting but in the spirit of wanting to offer in the values driven way.
We’ve had students come with messages on paper hearts and they put a pile on the kindness table, people have brought handmade jewelry, or someone came and offered sand dollars that they picked up on the beach. In other cases we hear about someone in the community doing a really beautiful initiative and we say “hey can we buy 100 of those” and share that goodness with others.
Kindness table Poland
What ripple effects have you seen transpired from Karma Kitchen?
So many, you never know where things go. One time someone came to have a meal and he asked if he could please do the dishes. Usually we don’t allow guests to come and do the dishes, it just gets a little chaotic. For whatever reason he made it through to do the dishes and there was something powerful about it. He shared this amazing story that as a kid he grew up in that area and he would go to the restaurant where Karma Kitchen was being held and steal food. Fast forward decades later, he comes back and suddenly the food is given to him for free. It came full circle for him, so he’s doing dishes in this restaurant that as a kid he stole from.
There’s some encounters where you meet people who are traveling from different places and they are so moved by this concept of strangers serving strangers that suddenly you just feel like family.
One time we were sitting in our volunteer orientation doing a circle of introductions and a moment of generosity that we received or did. Someone shared that they were on the highway driving through the toll booth, their toll was paid for, and they were given a smile card. They remembered seeing smile cards at Karma Kitchen so they decided to sign up to volunteer. In that same circle someone across from him asked what time he went through the toll and it turns out that was the person who tagged him. There are so many ripples that are tangible and some that aren’t, that you just don’t know, small and big things.
Smile cards with acts of kindness
What is the greatest challenge of having a volunteer run restaurant?
I feel like there’s almost no challenge, if you don’t want to do it then don’t do it, it’s a volunteer thing. There was a volunteer who said they used to work at a restaurant and volunteering in one was a complete 180. It’s the same exact work that she did at the restaurant but it was a completely different experience. If she forgot something like an order someone else already had her back, no one was trying to say that was your mistake. If you made a mistake at work, there would be tension but in this space it’s so fluid, we are all working together.
What is the greatest benefit of having a volunteer run restaurant?
Oh my gosh, everything! I think the greatest benefit is that it really tunes you into your interconnections. You realize that life is not about you. We have incredible wealth when we dissolve our sense of self into a greater whole, into trust of strangers, trust of the universe, and trust all that is around us.
I’ve volunteered at many Karma Kitchens but it never gets old because it’s never quite the same. You can never be mechanical, you can get used to certain things, but you're never just a cog in a machine because it’s so dynamic and alive.
Inner transformation is not something that you can copy and paste, it’s something that is living and there’s no equation for it. There’s no equation to make someone’s day. You really have to listen, pay attention, see who’s walking through the door and get to know them, find a way to make their day. I think there’s something about it that just keeps you alive. I’m blown away by the ripples that can happen from there and the possibilities.
What advice would you give to others who want to start a Karma Kitchen in their community?
Just do it, try it out. Be open to people and have no expectations. Whenever you do anything you may have an expectation of how it will be but really just be in the moment. There’s no product you're pushing, we’re not trying to make a livelihood. It’s an excuse for us to come together, serve, grow in generosity, grow in service, and cultivate a sense of love and community. Go in it with a pure intention, don’t focus too much on how it turns out. Focus more on the intention, not the result.