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Friday, November 20, 2009

N.J. restaurant offers customers 'pay what you can' option

By Karen Keller/The Star-Ledger

HIGHLAND PARK -- It’s not "all you can eat." It’s more like whatever you can pay.

A restaurant here is offering customers an innovative dining option — choose the size of your portion, then pay what you want.

Pay what you can at A Better World Cafe

People who can afford to pay extra help subsidize those less fortunate.

A Better World Cafe, housed in an historic brick church, is the fifth restaurant of its kind in the nation, which some are nicknaming "Robin Hood restaurants."

The original socially conscious eatery was opened in Salt Lake City in 2003 by a former acupuncturist and advocates of the concept hope it will revolutionize eating out.

"It’s about how we’re going to need to change our systems if we’re going to survive as a planet," said Tina Weishaus, a board member of Who is My Neighbor? The community group based in the Reformed Church of Highland Park co-owns the not-for-profit restaurant with Elijah’s Promise, a New Brunswick soup kitchen and culinary school.

Besides the lack of official prices — only suggested fares — the eatery uses mostly food from local farms and no plastic or Styrofoam. It also composts all food scraps and acts as a community forum by hosting talks and live performances by local artists.

The "Robin Hood" model aims to end hunger and waste and help bind local communities, said Denise Cerreta, 48, founder of One World Everybody Eats in downtown Salt Lake City. The entrepreneur has been living in Highland Park to launch the new restaurant and is in talks with "50 or 60" East Coast groups interested in copying the model. Among them is a Philadelphia foundation that wants to start a restaurant in Red Bank in Monmouth County, Cerreta said.

She said the idea has become a movement that’s gained so much steam that she moved out of her Utah home in August and is now on tour teaching people what she knows.

"I’m down to a suitcase and a cat," the Ohio native said.

volunteer-jacquelyn-juicic-cash-register-a-better-world-cafe.JPGVolunteer Jacquelyn Juricic works the cash register at A Better World Cafe and takes the suggested amount and extra donations from customers. The Highland Park restaurant opened its doors Oct. 21. The simple dining room, with communal tables and metal chairs, has attracted roughly 50 to 125 customers a day, head chef Rachel Weston said. Three paid staff and volunteers serve food from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays. Advertising has been minimal: there’s no sign for the cafe in the front of the church.

Listed each day on a dry erase board is a menu of roughly a dozen items that change every week or so, with suggested prices. One item, the "complimentary community entree," is free to everyone. On Thursday the free dish was curried pumpkin chick peas over rice.

A person who can’t pay anything is allowed to eat only the "community entree," but can volunteer at the cafe for an hour to get a bigger meal with more choices. Weston said all patrons are encouraged to volunteer, to think, for example, "What if I came back and baked bread, or played the piano?"

Customer Kathleen Logue, 49, said she has been unemployed for two years. But she still paid $6, more than the suggested combined price of $1.50 for a cup of Moroccan tomato consomme and $3 for a medium slice of roasted tomato and Swiss cheese quiche.

"There are people worse off than me," she said.

Highland Park is an ideal town to host the novel restaurant, said Weishaus, with a mixed-income population that includes residents of housing projects as well as Rutgers University professors. The borough also boasts of progressive policies such as promoting fair-trade products at local stores.

The seed of the idea for A Better World Cafe was planted in January, said Lisanne Finston, executive director of Elijah’s Promise. She was giving a talk at the Highland Park church -- commenting that the richest nation in the world should not have to have soup kitchens -- when someone in the audience mentioned the new dining venture in Salt Lake City.

"It’s an idea whose time has come," Finston said.

Diners enjoy lunch at A Better World Cafe, which only suggests prices on food items. Customers pay what they want, or nothing at all. Chef Rachel Weston, center, serves soups, salads, sandwiches and other hot entrees, as volunteer Jacquelyn Juricic, right, works the cash register.