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Greg's First Time at Karma Kitchen

Last Sunday was Greg's first time at Karma Kitchen. While dining with a large table-of-nine group, he casually comments that he loves the Karma Kitchen t-shirt sported by his server. True to KK tradition, we arrange to tag him with an extra tee that we had in the back! Of course, there's no charge since it is a gift. And somehow, this is the tipping point that just blows him away.

Almost immediately, he opens up his backpack and takes out two fifty dollar gift-cards for EBay and says, "Well, I'd like to gift this to Karma Kitchen." Wow. Really. Excited volunteers decide to step it up even further. "Instead of KK, what if you just gift it to two random tables in the restaurant, right now?" they ask Greg. He loves the idea but is uneasy about making the gift himself, so we make an easier proposition: "How 'bout two volunteers deliver it to two tables, and you can anonymously observe?" Everyone is all smiles about that idea.

Sure enough, two volunteers approach two unknown tables and explain: "At Karma Kitchen, we often tag people with small gifts. And people's cup of gratitude often overflows. We don't always know where that'll overflow but just now, someone in the restaurant gifted us this $50 gift card to give away to a KK guest. So this is for you. Please pay it forward as you are moved."

A couple on one table is just visibly stunned, as one of them puts a hand on her heart with teary eyes; on the other table, a mother decides to use it to teach her six-year-old (also on the table) about generosity. The energy on both of those tables is palpably elevated, as Greg and his whole table watch from a distance.

Generosity has done its magic again.

An unconditional gift always begets another gift. Here's to more than 20,000 volunteer hours that have kept Karma Kitchen alive as a context to practice that kind of generosity!

--NM on Nov 23, 2011

What Makes You Smile?

What a grand showing at KK today with 144 guests!

At one point, perhaps 25 people were waiting outside and a couple unsuspectingly walks up -- they are quite taken aback by the Karma Kitchen ideal of paying forward and can't believe that everyone in the restaurant was trusted to do that.  They put their name on the waitlist.  About ten minutes later, in the middle of the crowd, he comes up to me and tucks away a crumpled up twenty-dollar bill in my hands, gives me a hug and whispers in my ear, "We have to rush today but just wanted to pay forward for someone anyways."  Not only was I touched, but even all those around us.
Right after, Katie ended up singing a remarkable song with her guitar, that hold the whole restaurant chanting, "You and I are one."  What a powerful vibe.  It is somehow in those unchoreographed moments of reflection that the power of all this becomes so evident.  In one corner of the restaurant are seniors who will pay from meager social security checks; in another are students, and professionals, and entrepreneurs (and parents of volunteers :)).  Such diversity.  Yesterday, we even had a co-founder of PayPal amongst us, for the first time.  At the door, after understanding the spirit of KK, he tells us: "You wouldn't believe it, but I just received an act of generosity!  I was taking the bus here and I didn't have any change except fresh twenties from the ATM.  The woman behind me just paid for me, without saying anything.  I was so taken back.  Then I thought of giving her a twenty as a thank-you but before that she had already left."  He ate at KK, smiled big, and deepened his resolve to carry forward the spirit.
Servers asked guests to reflect on what makes them smile ... and guests beautifully wrote things like: chasing my pets around the house; playing music for people; seeing the people I love, even after a long time; connecting with community; Mango Lassis; sunday conversations; Muppets; sitting with my wife; seeing other people healthy and happy; all the people around me right now; new places, new faces; thunder and lightning; freckles on friends; humans; Karma Kitchen! sitting on the ghats of the ganges in Varanasi; a good meal with new friends; knowing that everything will be o-k; teddy bears; kissing roses; warm sun; my brother and my mom; moments of sharing.
Thank you all, for creating such a beautiful context, to have these ripples spread in infinite directions.

--Maitre-D :) on Nov 10, 2011



What an amazing experience at KK today!  Our theme was Connectedness: What does connection mean to you?
I have never had so many guests ask to sit at the community table.  I usually have to ask but this time it seemed to be a standing request.  Guests were making friends with each other outside of the space before they were even seated.  As a result the space expanded to include the sidewalk. Veterans who usually stay to themselves were open to offer explanations about KK to those who have never been.  Two couples that had never met before, met outside and ended up sitting and eating together.  They came to me to say that they are now a party of four.  This Sunday, our community tables were the ones that maintained the bottleneck.  
There was a girl under 10 who conveyed the message of KK to me!  By the end of her interpretation, she had an audience.  One of the guys who had come up earlier to me and proclaimed his interest in sitting by himself, afterward said he would be open to a community table.  There were none and I ended up seating him at a two-person table by himself and he let me know that if there was another person by themselves, they could join him.
Seems like the theme had its own energy.
We had a lot of newbies and third timers.  WIth that, we served 115 people and everyone had stories to tell.  One of the guests tagged the volunteer with a bracelet the guest used to use for meditation.  The guest explained there were a pile of blessing with that bracelet.  Another guest offered to help bus the tables.  The same young girl who offered the eloquent explanation of KK, asks a volunteer if she, the girl, could come and volunteer.  Another guest included another volunteer in the table total; 4 sitting at the table but they considered themselves 5 people..they felt really connected to the volunteer!  
Some of the notes written about the theme of the day are as follows:
  • "Connection is community - taking care of each other"
  • "The highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences  - F. Herbert"
  • "Connection is a sense of unity between certain individuals"
We entered as strangers and left as friends.  KK will remain in your heart forever whether you return or not.  For those who will return, you may volunteer with some of the same people but it will never be the same exact people, in the same space, with the same moments.  I hope you experienced each moment of our time together and I look forward to volunteering with you all in the future!


--MJ on Oct 25, 2011

Feeling More Joy and Hope For the Future

[Below is a republished blog entry by a first time KK-Chicago volunteer.]

On Sunday morning, after watching the start of the Chicago Marathon on TV, Mike and I hopped on the Brown Line to Merchandise Mart, for a very important commitment. The train was crowded with people traveling to various points in the race to cheer on their friends, and it certainly wasn’t easy crossing the street to get where we were going!

Nevertheless, we arrived just in time for our scheduled volunteer shift at the Karma Kitchen!

Karma Kitchen is a place that fosters Kindness, Joy, Generosity, and Trust, through the concept of “Pay it Forward”. Visitors to the Karma Kitchen will receive a delicious vegetarian meal, served by volunteers, and gifted to them by those who dined before them. At the end of the meal, diners receive a check for $0.00 and an invitation to continue the circle of generosity by paying it forward for future diners. Guests can anonymously leave any amount, or even pay it forward in other ways such as by signing up to volunteer, helping with dishes, or by going up to the microphone and singing a song.

Karma Kitchen Chicago is held the second Sunday of every month at the beautiful Klay Oven Indian Restaurant, starting at 12pm, with the last seating at 2:45pm.

As volunteers, Mike and I were asked to arrive at 10:30am for an orientation and lunch prior to the restaurant opening. During our orientation, we learned the history & philosophy of the Karma Kitchen in addition to what we’d need to know for our tasks.

The Karma Kitchen Philosophy

While any surplus of funds would go to area charities, Karma Kitchen isn’t about the money. They simply have a goal to self-fund the project. While the benefits that Karma Kitchen provides to society aren’t monetary – they are plentiful. Karma Kitchen represents a gift economy – where services are given without any strings attached. The intent is to increase trust, improve relationships, and build community, which I truly felt in my experience there. “At its core, gift-economy is a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, and isolation to community.”

The Meals

The meals served at the Karma Kitchen are delicious Indian cuisine that is 100% vegetarian, with a number of vegan options, as noted on the chalkboard with a (v). And don’t worry – while the rest of the Karma Kitchen staff is volunteers, the chefs are hired professionals.

Meals are served “Thali Style” which means diners get to try a little bit of everything on the menu! The menu last Sunday included the following – (going Clockwise from 12′o clock on the picture below):

  • Jeera Aloo (v) – Spicy potatoes
  • Hing Dal (v) - a lentil stew
  • Raita - a yogurt sauce which helps to cut the heat in the other dishes
  • Sabzi Pakora (v) - a fritter of deep fried assorted veggies in chickpea flour (my favorite dish of the day)
  • Naan - fresh, soft bread. (Vegans can substitute Roti instead)
  • Kheer - a sweet rice pudding dessert (delicious!)
  • Vegetable Jalfreezi (v) - a very spicy stew of green peppers & tomatoes (another favorite of mine!)
  • Palak Paneer - Spinach with Paneer Cheese
  • Vegetable Biryani - a Rice pilaf in the center of the plate

Not pictured, Chai Tea and Mango Lassi (a mango & yogurt drink) were offered as beverages.

Although this was a lot of food, it was delicious and I cleared my plate very quickly!

Our Tasks

After lunch, it was time to get to work! The group of volunteers was split up into various tasks including Hosts and Servers in the front of the house and Dishwashers (yes, really) and Food Platers in the back of the house. As first-time volunteers, Mike and I were given the opportunity to be Servers so that we could interact with the Customers and get the full Karma Kitchen experience.

I’ve never waitressed before in my life, so I was very nervous! Thankfully the “Thali Style” ordering made it easy – guests “ordered by exclusion” telling us only what they didn’t want – and we brought out everything else. We also each only had 4 tables assigned to us. I actually very much enjoyed waitressing, although it gave me a true respect for restaurant servers that probably have 2 – 3 times the workload I experienced during my shift!

Getting into the Spirit

To truly inspire joy and foster a sense of community, Karma Kitchen integrates it’s message throughout the experience in several other ways.

Each table in the restaurant had a notebook on it so that in addition to paying it forward, guests could also leave messages to future diners.

This was an actual message I found in one of the notebooks:

“I hope you enjoy my gift of kindness, it was truly a pleasure to pass this onto you. Enjoy your meal and continue to spread the love.”



There was also a table at the front full of books, movies, music, and crafts that anyone could browse and take. There were no prices on any items, but just like the food, guests could pay it forward however they wished, perhaps by dropping a contribution in the box, or writing in their name on the volunteer sign up sheet.


Lastly – my favorite part – every month there is a different theme at Karma Kitchen and an activity to go along with the theme. Since October 2nd was Gandhi’s birthday, the October theme centered around one of his most famous quotes: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Tying into that theme, guests and volunteers alike were encouraged to think about how they planned to be the change, and write it down on a piece of paper for displaying.


I truly had a wonderful time at Karma Kitchen, and left feeling more joy and hope for the future. I love the positive message embodied by Karma Kitchen, and I sincerely hope that message spreads!

In what ways do you plan to Be the Change?


Bonus Image: At a place as full of heart as Karma Kitchen, even their potatoes show it!

--Diana on Oct 13, 2011

It's Never Too Late For Generosity

It was wonderful serving with this week's crew!

There were tags flying around all day, from table-fulls of guests being tagged with peace chains and beautiful hand-written Hafiz and Rumi poems by Nandini, to the entire restaurant being anonymously tagged with a couple bags of delicious organically grown apples.

At the end of the day, after the restaurant had long since closed and only volunteers were lingering doing final clean-up, a guest comes back into the restaurant and says, "I came back because I wanted to give some more money to Karma Kitchen. Is it too late to give?" It's never too late for generosity.

--Maitre-D :) on Oct 9, 2011

Video: When Katie Came to KK!

Last May I had the pleasure and fun of spending a couple of days with Bill Miller, Nipun Mehta, Pancho Ramos-Stierle and the gang of ServiceSpace (formerly CharityFocus). Put simply, ServiceSpace – a wondrous web of people, technologies, ideas and actions – is an astonishing expression of lived generosity. And the glue that binds the web together is love.

If ever there was inspiration for realizing an economy based on giving over accumulating, that brings relationship and our inherent interdependence with all life back into the realm of exchange, I witnessed and felt it in those two days. Better yet, I was even infected by this generosity virus and I’m asking more and more “how can I serve (you)” versus the mostly unspoken undertow of “what can I get (from you?)”

One of ServiceSpace’s more famous ventures into the Gift Economy is Karma Kitchen (now in 3 cities in the U.S.). I’ve been hearing about Karma Kitchen for years and finally had the joy of walking through the doors of this unique experiment. Here is a five-minute film I created out of being so moved by my experience of these two days and in longing to convey the essence of what it means to live in the gift.

--Katie on Sep 21, 2011

A Song Underneath It All

Thank you for a beautiful Sunday at Karma Kitchen spent welcoming guests, serving tables, filling tea cups, rinsing dishes, slicing pie, placing orders, and going about the hundreds of big and small actions that combine to make Karma Kitchen possible.

But there is something that sings beneath all these mundane tasks --- and our guests tune into that "something". It's what made a table of young Berkeley students exclaim, "I don't know if we can eat anywhere else on Sunday's now!", it's what prompted the manager of Cafe Gratitude to bring her mother and friends in saying, "I'm on duty so can't stay, but had to bring them here because they LOVE the concept of what you're doing here and they want to learn more." It's what inspired a woman and her husband to offer up a song that "had written her" eighteen years ago -- an enchanting piece that had the whole restaurant tuned into something intangible yet powerfully real ...

During yesterday's closing circle at Karma Kitchen I was struck by the richness of the reflections and the sincerity in the faces and voices around the table. We heard Andrea saying, "this is one of the most meaningful things I've ever done," Shreya reflecting on the deep sense of accomplishment, Debbie exclaiming how, "everything about Karma Kitchen makes her just -- happy :)", Sohini saying how much she learned just by asking people to share the best piece of advice they'd ever received, Ashish's amazement at Juan's superhuman dishwashing abilities :) Pranav sharing his realization that some of our guests come not for the food but because they are hungry to be listened to and each one of them has something special to share. Richard sharing the backstory to the woman's song -- and reflecting on the power that comes from not just knowing your gift -- but knowing too what to do with it. Isot with a beautiful beaming smile saying, "It was so much fun!", Ari's candid words on how the demanding functional aspects of a role can overtake the experience, Kinnari recalling how Sharanya's poignant song on unity and oneness "hit the reset button" reminding her and all of us of the intention that drew us here, and Sharanya reflecting on the mystery of how corporations spend top dollar on ineffective company retreats and teambuilding exercises while, with no money in the equation, a group of total strangers working side by side at Karma Kitchen for four hours end up feeling like family by the end :)

It was such an honor to "team build" with all of you :)

For me one of the most telling testimonials for Karma Kitchen came from yesterday's youngest volunteer. When I asked Sohini what had inspired her to join us, she responded promptly, "My sister [who has volunteered at KK before] told me the experience completely changed the way she thinks about things."

--Pavi on Sep 9, 2011

Well Versed Poem (aka Labor of Love) :)

From the moment I entered into Karma Kitchen, I washed over by a sense of calm and tranquility. Being a part of many youth movements in my college days, I had expected vibrant and enthusiastic ‘Ice Breakers’ In reality I was greeted with a gracious warm Pavi introduction and given an opportunity to, 'absorb the space' The opening circle was a personal sharing of the joy the coordinators experienced in Karma Kitchen. It was truly the start of the ‘Labor of Love weekend.’ Working the role of a Dishwasher, my view of Karma Kitchen was from the inside. And on the inside Karma Kitchen, is a well versed poem. While the lyrics change ever week; the tone, the melody and the harmony is always in sync. Below is my story of last Sunday.
This week, I had the privilege of volunteering at Karma Kitchen Berkeley. Since many of us are not really familiar with Karma Kitchen, this is a concept where there are no price tags on menu. The food you are served with, was paid by someone who came before you. The underlying hope, is that you would pay this goodwill forward with your generosity. You pay whatever you can for the person who comes after you. 
For the past few months, I’ve had an inner voice constantly telling me to, ‘do something.’ Since, I had recently moved back to the Bay Area and was pre-occupied with getting settled in to life,  I had little time to really think about what I was supposed 'to do.'  I happened to come across "Karma Kitchen" on a friends Face Book profile, and was immediately intrigued. When I knew there was a weekly, ‘Karma Kitchen’ serving the Berkeley community every week, I knew this was it.  This had to get on my ‘To Do’ list. 
So after months of trying to schedule a weekend at karma Kitchen, I was delighted to be invited to volunteer on September 4th!! It was right in the middle of the Labor Day weekend, but something compelled me to accept the invite. As the weekend approached, our family set off to spend Saturday at Sacramento. And typically, we got back in the wee hours of the morning. The temptation to send a last minute change of plans via email was strong; but again, a will greater than my own said 'NO, you can do this'.
I usually cannot function without my morning coffee on a normal day and that day my coffee stash at home was over.I had about 3 hours of sleep and a long drive from San Jose to Berkeley (well for a Sunday morning); on what turned out to be one of those gray foggy mornings the Bay is notorious for.  En route, I realized I forgot to pump gas and right then my GPS decided to lose Satellite signal.   On any other day, it would have been Murphy’s Law at work and I would be, to put it mildly, in a very contrary mood. 
Surprising myself, I was calm that day.  I really did not want to fill myself with negative energy and was looking forward to Karma Kitchen. I’d read a lot about how a lot of the volunteers and guests had an intrinsic experience after working at Karma Kitchen. But somehow on my drive there, I was reflecting about the face value experience, the place, the people, the work and the off course the guests!  
I followed an instinct and landed in Berkeley in front of Chevron Gas station! Skipping the coffee, I headed straight to the restaurant only to be turned around yet again, by an unusually uncooperative GPS.  Not even that or parallel parking could deter a slow building anticipation growing in me.  When I reached the front of the restaurant my entire physical being was an automatic look out for that green mermaid that promised me a 'cup of heaven'. Standing outside the door, I watched a distinguished looking lady walk into Karma Kitchen. The part of me raised by Catholic Nuns raised its head and announced, “what if she is one of the coordinators; you don’t want to be seen loitering!” 
Giving one last look at the empty grey street lined with delightful café’s, I walked into the rest of my life.
From the moment I entered into Karma Kitchen, I washed over by a sense of calm and tranquility. Being a part of many youth movements in my college days, I had expected vibrant and enthusiastic ‘Ice Breakers’ In reality I was greeted by Pavi, a tall gracious lady who looked like she belonged in one of the sculptures adorning the many Temples in South India. After a very gracious introduction, Pavi went back to completing her tasks at hand and I was left to, 'absorb the space'. I could hear voices from the kitchen, questions and answers being passed back and forth of how Karma Kitchen works.  
Pavi then said, “I think you can help with the dishwasher.” For a moment, I was back in my University’s Cafeteria and I heard myself snapping at a friend saying, I would rather do anything else than deal with Dish washing. This was definitely ‘Karma’ winding its way back to me. While a part of me longed to quietly refuse, that inner voice spoke through my lips and said ‘sure, not a problem.’  Pavi, walked me through the process and the whole time, my heart kept sinking more and more. Finally, we made our back to the main dining area and there some of the other volunteers had arrived.
Turns out that distinguished lady I mentioned before, was a volunteer herself.
As ‘Ice breaking’ sessions go, I would say Karma Kitchen has stumbled on a gold mine. There was less of theatrics, which I personally loved, but more of personal sharing of the joy the coordinators experienced in Karma Kitchen. It was truly the start of the ‘Labor of Love weekend.’
When Ashish and I started working the dishes, I have to say I wasn’t the most enthusiastic team member. And then a delightful man walked in, the Chef, Mr. Vishnuji. A veteran cook from Nepal, his demeanor and pragmatic humor, got me shrugging off my aloofness and embracing the moment. He delighted me with stories and teased me endlessly. Vishnuji reminded me so much of my late grandfather who I recently lost. It was amazing to realize that when you open your heart, the gift of happiness just pores in. After that it’s a matter of what we do with it.
The next person to touch my heart is Isot, the designated lady I walked in with. Isot was in charge of the desserts and refreshments and her work area was a passage between the dish area and the main kitchen. Between the three Volunteers working the dishes, and the servers bring up the refreshment orders; Isot probably walked a mile or two in that little space. But with a smile and good cheer. In fact Isot even asked if she could help me since she felt that she needed to do more. If only we all think like that. Often times, it’s tasking on my energy when I have to do more than what’s expected of me.
The next two people who touched my heart were the Incredible Juan and the enigmatic Ranjit-ji. When Pavi was orienting us with the dish-washing process, she gave us a heads-up on Juan. In short, Pavi distinctly said, ‘your jaw will hit the floor’. And I am proud to say, that the cynic in me was denied for once and my jaw did hit the floor. And Pavi was right next to me, delighted in how shocked I was. I am for once dumbfounded to articulate Juan, he was like Bugs Bunny, Tom & Jerry, Pluto all rolled in to one, and I swear I felt he used his legs as well to juggle plates, cups and cutlery from the sink, through the commercial dishwasher and Voila, it was done.
It’s not my intention to imply Juan looks like a cartoon.  In fact he looks quite the opposite. I only mean that I have never seen that much movement of one being except in Cartoon shows.
And finally Ranjit-ji, probably the quietest one among all us, but probably the one who was working the most making numerous freshly baked naans round the clock, in an extremely heated tradional oven. But he in-fact took the time to make fresh Naan, cut it up and place in my hands and with a simple‘eat’ in Hindi. For me, that act was the one that built the connection Pavi was talking during the opening circle. 
I have a 3 month waiting period rule, before I ever show my inner self to new people. When I would usually evaluate and determine, I just gave up and became myself in front of complete strangers, in one day. THAT has never ever happened before.
Even though, I was primarily in the back, I realized that was where I was happiest during the day. I enjoyed interacting with such wonderful other volunteers who had each others back. Some of the guests that day, a spectacular signing duo gave me a small opportunity to do an small Act of generosity.
I have worked on many people/ community oriented projects before. This is first time, it felt like a well worn blanket; that comforted me the moment, I choose to put it on.  My view from the Karma Kitchen; was from the inside. And on the inside Karma Kitchen, is a well versed poem.  While the lyrics change ever week; the tone, the melody and the harmony is always in sync.  
The daily grind got the better of me even before the weekend was over and I realized that I have miles to go before I grow.
But while I am writing this, I realize the tone for how I want to live the rest of my life is setting in. While there are many things outside, that are beyond my control, I want to be like the behind the scenes of Karma Kitchen; a well versed poem.

--Andrea on Sep 5, 2011

128 Guests Today! :)

Thanks for another wonderful day at Karma kitchen!! We served over 128 guests today!

As usual, we hosted some really interesting people -- which started with a group of grannies from a senior center who came in a van and sat at the community table. They totally loved their unique experience. One of the volunteers met couple of old high school friends, one of whom was a guest and the other was a volunteer! There were several people who did not know about KK and were just walking by and took a chance on a new experience -- and ended up thanking us over and over, for the unique experience.

The theme of the day was "Change" and we heard some very insightful responses from - change is necessary to "thanks for a wonderful community and having change every second of the day" to beautiful drawings. (My favorite is the photo posted to the right side.)

For me, personally, it is heartwarming to see more and more guests wanting to sit at the community table, wanting to connect with others rather than protecting their "space" ... I am inclined to believe that one day, all our tables will be community tables :) and every single person wants to move from "isolation to community"!

What a wonderful day! Thanks everyone for the support and the opportunity to serve with you. Looking forward to many more opportunities ...

--Kanchan on Aug 14, 2011

Indian cooking

Charity and swva is in every bone of mine and truly I understand give-receive-dance!

The Seva Kitchen in Ahmedabad run by Manav Sadhna is where I intrinically learned how a house can serve food with love and charity.  My son based on that love has over 6 years created a movie with slum kids(incidently the film was made at the same time as slumdog millionaire)and with people who make a difference with love and care.

I teach vegetarian Indian cooking and contribute many couple classes as auction items.  Last year I taught 800 people at libraries, park districts,at  Common Threads for children Taste of Chicago and at home.  For forty years I have served Asian Indians and provided services for all age groups in domestic violence, mental health, holistic health care and moving ahead.

I will be thrilled to do Karma Kitchen in Chicago, infact am determined to do it.  Any do and dont tips?

--Ranjana Bhargava on Aug 9, 2011

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