Five partners attempting a business both revolutionary and elementary; a for-profit pay-what-you-want (PWYW) restaurant in downtown Salem to offer locally-sourced, multi-cultural cuisine, say they are confidently pushing forward despite an investor’s withdrawal and a struggling online fundraising campaign.

“We believe we have a bullet-proof business and sustainment plan,” says Michele Darr, board member of Food for Thought Café and Infoshop, as the Salem restaurant will be known. Darr says the team, which includes an accountant with 20 years experience as well as her own experience with a successful PWYW company and owning and operating an international fusion restaurant in North Portland, is fully confident the dream will become a reality. Business acumen, “celebrity endorsements and celebrity chefs” are already in place.

The business partners include Darr and other longtime community advocates Nichole Rose, Amanda Hinman and Steven Esses. Though the restaurant’s location, investors and strategy may change, the partners are convinced that a for-profit entity that feeds the needy and non-needy side-by-side strengthens the entire community – not just those who are hungry.

“Giving low-income people the chance to eat a nutritious sit-down meal somewhere other than a soup kitchen helps [all people] remember that we aren’t strangers, or forgotten citizens…we are neighbors,” says Darr.

Intended to provide classes, meeting and study areas as well as food, Darr adds, “this community space will be one that nurtures body, mind and soul, while transforming the way people think about food assistance and charity.”

The restaurant was originally scheduled to open in late September, with initial funding sourced from investors and donations and a GoFundMe campaign. Although the concept sounds utopian, and though fundraising has faced hurdles for Food for Thought, an organization that promotes the restaurant model, One World Everybody Eats, says more than 60 (largely non-profit) PWYW community cafes already operate in America and more than 50 more are in the planning stages worldwide. Existing cafes serve 4,000 meals a day (1.4 million a year) in both for-profit and non-profit settings

Amanda Hinman, the group’s accountant and business manager, is convinced the model is viable and sustainable. The group bases their enterprise on Jon Bon Jovi Soul Kitchens and market research “done by Panera Bread Company when they opened their first Pay What You Can Cafe, Panera Cares in Dearborn, Michigan… This experiment helped Panera build a long-term strategy devoted to maintaining a loyal return customer base,” Hinman says, “and is serving as a roadmap for others.”

Jessica Parks is Executive Director of Take Root Café in Kirksville, MO, a similar restaurant that has been open for 10 months. Parks says that getting initial and ongoing financial support is one of the enterprise’s most important challenges. “You need a solid business plan and budget to explain to people how it will work and why it will work,” Parks says. “Lots of stats plus pulling at the heartstrings equals a successful fundraising campaign.”

Take Root crowdfunds, holds fundraising events and applies for grants – it has received $30,000 from the USDA and $10,000 from a private foundation. “People were very skeptical at first,” she says, “but once they come, taste our food and see it in action they keep coming back.”

At Take Root’s register, 90-95% pay the suggested amount for their meal, and 5-10% pay less or pay nothing or volunteer for their meal, according to Parks. “All of our staff are trained to explain the concept to new people when they walk in,” she adds, “and make sure to make people feel as comfortable as possible if they can’t donate.”

At a similar restaurant, the Community Café, operating for five years in Bozeman, MT, financial challenges are ongoing but solvable says Chelsea Eddy, House Manager for the Community Café. Over half of customers “either don’t pay anything or underpay,” Eddy says, but the restaurant is a program of the HRDC,

“a large well-established non-profit in Bozeman providing many social services to the local community.” The café is currently rebranding to encourage more customers who can afford it to pay the suggested price in order for the restaurant to be more sustainable. Eddy says she especially values that Community Café “is a communal space for everyone – and therefore encourages all community members to dine together, thus promoting a more compassionate, united community.”

In Salem, a major Food for Thought investor was unexpectedly hit by heavy financial blows after Hurricane Harvey hit his family’s home in Huston. The set-back caused board members to adjust their business plan to attract new potential business partners.

Darr and other Food for Thought board members are convinced the café’s strong vision and the success of similar enterprises mean that the project will come to pass in time.

“With food insecurity affecting…  17 million households in every county in America,” Rose says, “experts in many fields have called upon organizations to find new ways to address this sometimes invisible issue. While there are other organizations in Salem that provide hunger relief services, Food For Thought Cafe and Infoshop seeks to join the response to this call by maintaining a safe, all-inclusive space where people are nourished in body, mind and soul; a space where people come together to eat in dignity while forming strong bonds that foster interconnection, compassion and community resilience.”


Here is a link to their gofundme page: