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Berkeley meets Mississippi

In California a love for the South is often met with skepticism and a questioning look at the very least.  Similarly in the South being from Berkeley means you might as well be from Mars.  However on this particular Karma Kitchen Sunday I had the pleasure of taking part in the coming together of two very different parts of the country.

As I approached my table I immediately detected a Southern accent and subtly peppered my conversation with "y'alls".  The guests were wonderful and pleasant asking curiously asking questions, but approaching everything with an open mind.  It was not until after their meal that I thought to ask them where they were from.  Their response surprised me, but I think my response shocked them.  "Mississippi," they said.  "Mississippi??  I love Mississippi," I responded with enthusiasm.  I explained how my father and I spent a 10 day roadtrip driving from Houston to Memphis and most of our time was spent in Mississippi.  They were visiting San Francisco, had taken BART to Berkeley, and were looking for a "typical" Berkeley experience.  I told them that Karma Kitchen was about as Berkeley experience as they could have and they agreed.  In the end I was glad to have shared an experience that I hoped would change at least one group's idea of a very different town.  

--Neerav on Dec 27, 2010

Our First Guests Today: A Monk And His Friends

Fifteen minutes before opening, a crew of 12 people is buzzing with excitement at the doors. Among them, there is a Buddhist monk. When you have a monk waiting to be the first guest, you know it's going to be a day full of loving-kindness. And it was. 

As one of the volunteers comes out to put the Karma Kitchen (KK) sign at the door, he greets the enthusiastic guests and lets them know that we are about to open. The last time that the volunteer and the monk had met (at a Wednesday!), he wasn't in robes.  A beautiful moment of smiles.  The monk thought of bringing his community members to KK to learn about generosity, positive karma and the gift-economy, since some of the youngsters in the crew were very skeptical about such an idea.

Even before they order, a woman in the group loves my KK t-shirt:  "Where can we get one?" Little did she know that it is a renowned CF tag (like this and this) to give away t-shirts off our backs. So I go in the back, change my t-shirt and offer her my KK t-shirt!  Everyone on the table is in complete awe, especially the teens, but it is overshadowed by the huge smile, laughter and joy of the woman herself.

Perhaps inspired by the monk, everyone on the table eats in mindful silence for 15 minutes.  As I return to the back, the server on their table tells me that their skepticism is melting like a snow ball on a hot summer day!  After some stories and hugs, their cup of gratitude starts to fill up.  And how does a 15 year old respond when he gets blown away by generosity?  He offers to do the dishes!  The server acknowledged the beauty of his intention and kindly explained that there wasn't enough room for them to join the dish washing crew, but perhaps they could volunteer next time they visit.  

The server is truly blown away by the transformation she witnessed in front of her eyes. In fact, we all are blown away! 

But that's not it. 

At the end, they called for me, to gift me a hug.  One by one, more than a dozen of them, hugged me and at the end, we all just meshed into a giant collective hug.  Even the monk offered his version of a hug: palms together and a head bow.  It felt like love was just oozzing out of all of us.

Soon after, I got another email of a follow-up discussion the group had with another KK volunteer.  Everyone was radiating from their KK experience.  "Why can't the whole world be like this?"  "Love was just in the air." "Were these just everyday volunteers, who had never worked together before? What gets them to be so nice?" "I wonder if the same food would taste as good, if it wasn't a Karma Kitchen day?" "Generosity really creates more generosity."  And the youngest amongst them, a 12 year old, said to the volunteer: "I love this KK t-shirt."  It was the maroon version of the KK t-shirt, different my white one.  And sure enough, by the end of the conversation, a wowed-kid had been tagged with that t-shirt.

Hosting a monk is a great reminder that generosity really does generate more generosity.

--Pancho on Dec 27, 2010

First Vegan Sunday in Berkeley!

Dec 12, 2010

It was about three years ago that Christian and I first went to Karma Kitchen in Berkeley for our “first date”.  We enjoyed the food, the games at the table which helped us to get to know each other in a fun and meaningful way, and the embodied spirit of generosity.  When we got the check, though, we were given the opportunity to imagine a community, with our dining experience enabled by the generosity of those before us, and to which we could contribute for those coming after us, and it became much more than a traditional date! We have eaten several times since then, once meeting friends for lunch as part of a day of mindfulness for the New Generation Sangha and another time as a lunch gathering for a Young Jain Professional group, feeling the connections in our spiritual practices, communities and the spirit of Karma Kitchen.

In early November, when Christian read one of the many inspiring recounts of a Karma Kitchen Sunday, he was moved to action and exclaimed:  "We should volunteer!"   And the time was ripe.  Since the last time we had come to Karma Kitchen we had the surprise pleasure of hearing Bhoutik and other ambassadors of generosity from Charity Focus speak at a big Jain center celebration in the South Bay. That celebration also featured several vegan speakers and we were there serving vegan treats to the attendees. Inspired by the Charity Focus panel's energy to "be the change", Christian and I affirmed our intentions to do just that in a way that continued after the event. He created a website for me to write about ahimsa, Jainism and veganism.  And serendipitously, our friend from Washington DC who came to the Jain center event told us that Karma Kitchen DC had already had some vegan days. So I joined Christian in his excitement  to volunteer at Karma Kitchen in the glow of our recent experiences, and we hatched a proposal to change the menu from vegetarian to all-vegan -- just as we had been asking the Jain community to consider in their own diets, for reasons of compassion to dairy cows and chickens.

When we approached the core coordinators and host restaurant about a vegan day in Berkeley, they were all for it if we were ready to take the responsibility to coordinate it.   And so we began to plan in earnest for the first vegan Sunday in Berkeley!

We roped in our friend, fellow vegan, and founder of Karma Clinic, Dr. Aumatma. She brought in more of her friends, including Kanchan. Oh, and our friend Bhoutik who had inspired us as part of the Charity Focus panel at the Jain center , who that day, had declared that he would go vegan, though he decried his cooking skills—he opted in, too!

We talked to the DC Karma Kitchen and VegSociety DC volunteers to hear what they did  on their Vegan Days (now institutionalized as monthly happenings) and get ideas for entrees, drinks and dessert. Happily, the Taste of the Himalayas already had a vegan menu, so we easily picked a few entrees: Tofu saag, chana masala and a mix of fresh, locally available vegetables. We just needed to pick substitutions for butter on naan, vegan drinks and desserts, and we had lots of choices. We thought we’d try Chai with soy milk, Kheer with almond milk, and Mango Lassi with coconut milk, coconut yogurt and the newest kid on the block, coconut kefir. For the naan, which the restaurant had already developed in a vegan form, we’d spread on some Earth Balance rather than the traditional butter.   For dessert, we had lots of options from vegan ice-cream to pies.  This could work!

Though the restaurant staff and owner were somewhat familiar with veganism, we thought it would be helpful to meet with them and  introduce the range of choices in a vegan diet in the context of why people chose veganism, for ethical, health and environmental reasons. We brainstormed additional slides to add to Dr. Aumatma’s nutritionally robust PowerPoint presentation, and I brought a poster board that we had made for the Jain center event showing how to make almond milk.  We sat around a table at Himalyan Flavors with them, and rounded out our presentation with a sharing of samples of almond milk and earth balance as we discussed all kinds of vegan possibilities in Nepali, Indian and other cuisines. They were on board for Vegan Day.

Then, we went shopping for all our goodies.  I asked Turtle Mountain to contribute to our experiment, as they had for the Jain center vegan event, and they provided the coconut milk, yogurt and kefir, as well as all the delicious flavors of soy and coconut based ice cream. With their donation, they wished us well and in a letter to us, predicted that the day would be a magical experience! (They helped to make it so…) Christian had also been gifted a box of almonds from his friend whose family had an almond farm and we made the almond milk using the gifted almonds, dates and a powerful blender.    

Aumatma and I brainstormed other resources to have available on the vegan day. We heard from our friends in DC, the organizers in Berkeley, and reaffirmed to ourselves that we wanted to maintain the primary focus of Karma Kitchen as a generosity experience and so we thought a lot about what it meant to offer up this special day as way of eating mindfully and consciously, in line with our highest values. We opted to place information about the health, ethical, environmental benefits of a vegan diet on the kindness table so that it would be handy for people to pick up if they were interested.

We sent information about the vegan Karma Kitchen day to the San Francisco Bay Area veg list-serv and our Facebook friends.  And the big day arrived on Dec 12th. :)

We arrived early for set up, eager with anticipation, moving and setting the tables. Bhoutik put on the Karma Kitchen soundtrack.  On the kindness table, we put out recipes, Turtle Mountain product info and copies of Vegetarian Journals donated by the Vegetarian Resource Group. We set a theme of "Nonviolence and Compassion" as the underlying values for which veganism was but one expression.  All the volunteers introduced ourselves and set the tone of the day with stories, then veterans like Nipun, Mariette, Bhoutik, Aumatma, and Kanchan oriented the newbies and we all felt the adrenaline rush of doing something new, now!  We sampled the chai, and smelled the aroma of the food cooking.  Anupam made a last minute run for some more coconut kefir to add to the lassi. And then… the diners came! Some people came specifically to support the Vegan Sunday. A couple of diners who came as a result of the veg-list posting were excited to be able to try everything on offer that day and told us they’d come back.  One of the volunteers from the Jain center who had recently turned vegan made a trip from the South bay with his wife and young son and enjoyed trying all the different flavors, asking more about volunteering.  For others, the intersection of gift-economy values of Karma Kitchen seemed like a natural fit with a conscious diet, even if they would not have elected an entirely vegan menu. Christian served my yoga teacher, who unbeknownst to me, used to teach close to the restaurant and had discovered Karma Kitchen a while ago. And on one of my tables—a friend from Sangha! Many more people came, previously unknown to us, establishing a relationship just then.  One table of four left because they wanted meat but that is an occasional occurrence at Karma Kitchen and not specifically related to the shift to veganism.

How did we do with the food? Especially at a restaurant, no matter what the underlying values, it has to taste good. So? For some discriminating tastes, it was not quite what they were used to, but for most, the flavors were delightful in themselves. Despite recommendations from knowledgeable vegan friends for particular brands of packaged soy milk, I had opted to try to save on packaging and make soy chai using a powder that had worked fine in test batches. Given the large quantities of the day, however, the powder didn’t provide an ideal texture. Still Sanjog, one of our chefs, experimented with coconut and almond milk, and as we continued to develop a recipe on the fly, the orders kept coming.   Coconut milk and mango pulp made for a great drink, with many requesting refills.  People liked the warm, creamy almond kheer, lovingly garnished with almond pieces on top.  The earth balance spread on naan went over, literally, better than butter.  The ice cream and pie, too, were hits, though we realized that nine flavors of ice cream were not practical for servers or guests to sort through!

In addition to the food, it was people's conscious spirit that ultimately touched us as volunteers in the Karma Kitchen experience.  My spatially challenged brain messed up the table numbers and gave one table another table’s order several times, but Aumatma and Kanchan  adjusted and the diners were forgiving, even appreciative.  With the added wait, some took the opportunity to check out the kindness table, ask about why we chose a vegan menu, and write notes. Despite my bungling, one table even offered a tip, which they were laughingly advised could not be accepted as such, though we appreciated  their intention.   One gentleman asked me if I had been serving long, and if “they” were treating me well. I told him truthfully that this was my first waitressing gig, that I was happy to have this opportunity to serve outside the expectations of a regular job or relationship, and that the “customers”, including his table, really were treating me well! Several long time volunteers came with friends and family and the line between server and served blurred.  When Christian, Nipun, and Bhoutik discovered that there was a birthday on a table of five, they called on all of us to help celebrate. The volunteers in the kitchen assembled an ice cream sampler and pie “cake”, replete with candles,  and we all sang "Happy Birthday" with gusto.

Our crew of almost a dozen volunteers worked all day to serve 114 guests, and along the way, we practically became family; sometimes quiet, sometimes rowdy, but always supportive.  Pancho and Bill pitched in to clean tables before Christian and I even became dimly aware that we should be doing it after our diners left!  Anisha greeted us with a smile and plenty of enthusiasm whenever we came to the back of the kitchen with an order of 5 mango lassis and a convoluted order of pies and ice cream. Somehow the chai container, with all its iterations of experimentation got filled, the dishes got done and Kanchan single handedly served up orders expeditiously on plates, with everyone joking and having fun. And our family took care of each other too, mopping up spilled water so we wouldn’t trip on the floor, urging each other to “eat, eat!” and offering one another special snacks that the chef had prepared for us.  After seven hours of constant activity, we all sat down for a joint meal and shared stories.  As the conversation ebbed, one of the volunteers accidentally spilled some Mango Lassi on the ground.  Bhoutik requested Nipun not to move, and within a blink of an eye, three other people just sprang up to clean the floor with towels and another volunteer brought the mop.  It was a small action but it spoke mountains about our connection.

One day later, Dr. Aumatma opened a juice bar in a sister restaurant and many of the volunteer crew reconvened, sharing smiles, hugs and stories of Vegan Sunday over smoothies and teas.

--Jina on Dec 21, 2010

Before I Even Step Into the Restaurant

It was my first time at Karma Kitchen today.  I must've got in at around 1:45PM and the Maitre-D tells me that they're likely to be full for the day.  "Really?" I said.  "Our last seating is at 2:30PM but unfortunately, as you can see here, we've got 11 tables waiting before you."  He was right, of course.  Dozens of people were waiting outside in their clusters; it was a bit cold but everyone was down to wait half an hour for their Karma Kitchen experience.

In seemingly futile attempt, I protested: "I've driven 2 hours just to experience this, and I've been trying to come here for over year and a half.  I may not be able to come back for a long while.  I've heard so much about Karma Kitchen -- I HAVE to get in today.  Is there ANYTHING you can do to let me in?"

Listening in to our conversation is a fellow who had just added his name on the waitlist.  Zach, as I later found out.  Moved by something I said, Zach turns to the Maitre-D and says, "You know what, I'd rather that he gets in before me.  Can you make sure of that?"

A little bit confused, I look at him quizically.  Seriously?  He's just going to give up his spot for me?  He doesn't even know me.

"No, no, it's fine, you can go ahead," I said.  Much to my surprise, Zach replied, "The theme for the day is compassion and nonviolence, so you can't say no today! You have to go ahead of me."  It was a stunning response, and got us chatting a bit about how I'm not used to such experiences.  At one point, Zach asked, "Are you not used to getting gifts?" "Well, I guess not," I said after some reflection. "You just need more practice with that, then!"

Right then, he reached for his wallet.  What, was he going to give me money now?  No.  He reach for a card and gave it to me.  A "Smile Card." He encouraged me to practice kindness, and explained the pay-it-forward concept.

It was kind of special, I have to say.  Even more so  because I had earlier seen another person arguing with the Maitre-D about trying to get ahead of someone else in the waitlist.  That's the typical pattern, I suppose.  But Zach just turned it around by his own example.  Soon, all of us outside caught onto the vibe and formed a spontaneous community; instead of getting our separate tables, we all grouped into bunches with random strangers such that most everyone there got a seat.

The food, the ambiance, the volunteers, the conversations -- it was all awesome.  In a way, I expected that.  What I didn't expect is that my Karma Kitchen experience would begin before I even set foot in the restaurant.

[Zach, if you ever read this, I will definitely pay-forward that Smile Card.]

--Nikhil on Dec 12, 2010

Beautiful! :)

Beautiful Sunday there at KK!

Enjoyed reading the recap of the day and the little circles of love, compassion, joy and great expressions of gratitude!



--susan on Dec 7, 2010

An Unforgettable Credit Card Request

Last week, I served as interface for the first time at Karma Kitchen.  Part of that role required me to gather the money that people contributed.  Up until now, in the numerous times I've volunteered at KK, I had never dealt with KK money.  Today, though, I was seeing how much people left.  Or didn't. Part of the practice of volunteering in this role, of course, is to resist impulsive judgement and focus on cultivating trust in generosity.

Although I couldn't always co-relate who left how much, I could clearly see that at least two tables left absolutely nothing.  It leaves you with a mixed feeling -- Are they taking advantage of this experiment?  Or are they just in a tough spot that day?  Karma Kitchen is a chain of generosity, where people last week paid for this week's expenses and it's up to everyone to see if the chain continues.  Some leave more, some leave less, and the hope is that it all evens out.  But nothing?  Either we didn't do a good job as volunteers or they felt no connection to the people last week who paid their tab nor to the people in the coming week who will be gifted the same experience.  It all felt a bit awkward, to say the least.

This is where my past KK experience came in handy, though, as I realized that for every person who can't/doesn't pay-it-forward, there will be those who go way over the top.  It's a kind of trust.

As serendipity would have it, I experienced an exceptional guest just like that.

One of the servers, Praveen, enthusiastically came upto me and said, "Here's a credit card from a table of four.  Two of them gave cash, third one specified the amount for the credit card, but the fourth one asked us to charge however much we want!"  Wow!  Really?!?  This doesn't happen at a typical restaurant.  Technically, it was my job to swipe the credit card -- but how much should I charge?  I looked at their table; one of them sported a red and white Christmasy hat.  We probably needed the money to balance out some of the others today.  But then I had one of those vintage Karma Kitchen moments.  If Karma Kitchen is here to support people's experience from transaction to trust, we must encourage those who authentically step into that space.

I didn't swipe the card.  At all.  

Not only that, Praveen and I decided to tag her.  From our gift-bag, we found a handcrafted item; we scribbled an inspirational quote; I even made a little origami trinket from scratch paper.  With all those small gifts, her credit card receipt was a Smile Card that silently stated the obvious: "Thank you. You have renewed our faith."

At first, I felt a slight hesitation ... a kind of lack of clarity  or confusion.  And then, as soon as I let go, the liberation of something inside me sent chills up my spine and I just knew I had done the right thing.  She made my day.  What people can experience at Karma Kitchen is totally beautiful.  At the end of the day, when the story was shared with other volunteers, everyone was speechless, shaking their heads in disbelief. :)

Somewhere, I had heard one of the Karma Kitchen founders say that this is an experiment about a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, isolation to community, and scarcity to abundance.  I don't know about the guests, but I definitely experienced that today.

--Varsha on Dec 6, 2010

Adventures in Agenda-less Service



It was a joy serving with you all on this wet Berkeley Sunday. Our 98 guests were treated to a level of step-it-up generosity rarely achieved in these parts :) and as several commented in the closing circle, it made for a very special experience.

The spirit of the day was set early on with Bhoutik and Sharanya coming in on their off day :) to help set up the restaurant and give the new servers all-important orientations. While the rains kept the crowd away early in the day, they came in full force later. Soon it was a full house, and it took a team effort to keep up. Varsha was deftly managing as Interface, with Joanne, Minah and Sujeeth rolling with all of the punches that platers/D&D's typically face, such as a lack of spoons :) Meanwhile our bedrock all day was Phillip, a first-time volunteer who had some serious skills with the dishes. A deep bow of gratitude to you for your selfless work the entire day.

But as Philip reflected in the closing circle, this day wasn't about any individual, it was a true team effort. The key, as he pointed out, was a commitment to "agenda-less" service. Beth, who, along with Salma made up part of our superstar server trio, remarked how the spirit of the team was unlike anything she had experienced. A veteran of the non-profit world, also having practiced service for many years, she said stunningly, "In all my life, I have never had a service experience quite like this." Much of it has to do with our first-timers, who were all ringers. Praveen, a KK veteran and anchor of today's severs, remarked, "The credit really should be given to the first timers, 'cos they didn't seem like it. They did an awesome awesome job." Couldn't agree more.

A special highlight of the day was when, after finishing his/her meal, a guest sneakily placed their credit card in the bill folder with the request, "Please charge whatever amount of money you would like." Have you ever heard of that happening at a restaurant?!? But if that wasn't stunning enough, Praveen and Varsha go over the top of that: they charge no money to the card, and come back with another gift for the guest!
The day wrapped up with a group of 15 coming in to celebrate a birthday. Sensing the opportunity to tag the birthday girl in a special way, the crew comes out to the table, and together sings Happy Birthday. And after that, each one of us gives her a big birthday hug.

Just another page in the chapter of agenda-less service :)

--Maitre-D :) on Dec 5, 2010

Discovering Smiles on a Rainy Day

What a joy it was to "discover" the smiles of 112 guests on a rainy Berkeley day!

We started our opening circle with stories of Andrea stopping her 60mph car to watch a stunning egret, Ashwin noticing generosity of a stranger who carefully fixed a fallen KK sign, Marilyn reflecting on parking garage kindness from the previous day, and Brittany evoking the story of the SF Chronicle's editor who infamously served as a floater.  Although we didn't know each other, generosity seemed to bind us all together.

As the day progressed, many more stories continued to unfold.  A woman visibly started shaking when she heard some KK stories ("I've got the chills", she said as her face turned red), a Berkeley research student who is studying Karma Kitchen tagged a guest on a random table, a hefty fellow left the restaurant with all smiles saying, "I'm coming back to volunteer", a man in his 70s brought a wow-90%-cocao chocolate as a gift for the volunteers, a Dad brought his young son to KK to teach him about generosity and had him consciously count the money he left in the envelope, a young woman took out a Smile Deck idea and decided to do it as her pay-it-forward "bonus", a school teacher kept saying that she wanted to bring her whole class here. 

And it didn't stop there.  As we all gathered for our 3PM feast, Jennifer and Thao had artfully arranged the peas on top of the rice in a formation that poignantly summed up the whole day -- a smile and a heart.

Thank you, all!

--NM on Nov 8, 2010

The Stuff of Rainbows

With Karma Kitchen being on Halloween this week, we were certain to have our share of surprises. But the power of some of today's generosity stories were unexpected gifts that I will treasure for a long time to come.

First-time volunteer Charisette started by sharing in the opening circle how grateful she was for the love and patience everyone was showing her since she arrived to Berkeley as an exchange student. She recalled how a small act of kindness from a BART attendant really made her day, and was at Karma Kitchen to pay it forward. Her enthusiasm, smiles, and bright, generous spirit serving up front brightened the whole restaurant. Meanwhile, in the back Tiffany kept the drinks and desserts coming, while intuitively stepping in to do dishes and clear tables, which kept the whole restaurant flowing smoothly! Lachmin was feeling under-the-weather, but maintained a flawless plating job! Working solo for much of the time, others marveled at how she was still able to lovingly attend to every detail while plating! Bhoutik was the ambiance of Karma Kitchen- providing music, smiles, laughter- holding down the fort with Juan on dishes, serving, talking, clearing tables- he was icing on the Karma Kitchen cake. Our anchor Audrey was a steadying influence as interface, Lachmin was raving at how easy she made everyone else's job all day.

We had some remarkable guests and other friends share their spirit at KK this week. Trushna and Nirav came early to deliver some incredible deserts: Halloween cookies, vegan chocolate cake (we want that recipe!), and decadent chocolate truffles. They were a huge hit. Later Susan came by and tagged the whole volunteer crew with her own batch of homemade cookies. So sweet (literally)!

Richard came for lunch with two remarkable friends, Marvin Sanders and Haricharan Das, and Marvin delighted the restaurant with an incredible Bach solo on his flute. The co-founders of Karma Kitchen Chicago graced us with their presence, and we did our best to live up to the high standards they have set :-) Afreen brought one of her students from nearby Oakland, and tells how the student studied the KK menu's FAQ carefully, then announced decidedly, "You know, I'm going to volunteer here". Then a young woman comes in very out of sorts, sits at a table and starts crying. Sensing the woman's fragile state, Audrey comes over and embraces her, and Manasi sits with her and finds that she just needed someone to listen to her. We tag her with one of the intricate handmade cards made by an anonymous KK regular.

The "Card Lady" deserves her own description. We find her outside the restaurant with a pen, pad, and magnifying glass pointed to the KK menu, writing down the names of the food being served. "My eye sight is not that great, but I like to make the messages in the cards rhyme with the food being served," she tells. Her presence is so warm, so magnetic. She explains that giving these cards to guests at Karma Kitchen is something she treasures because the spirit behind her cards is the same as KK's. "If people can give up their fear just a little bit, they will see how wonderful generosity is". We thanked her for the opportunity to present her cards to guests at KK on her behalf, and that we honor them as gifts. And in the end we were even able to rope the elusive card lady in for a meal! We were delighted at the opportunity to serve her.

One of the highlights of the day came at the end when tireless volunteer Usha, a 60-something Himalyan trekker, long-distance bicyclist, and loving soul served a table of enthusiastic guests. Squeezing 7 into a table for four, the group clearly was comfortable as a family. And their spirit and love moved us to make them part of the extended KK family, tagging every person at the table with a Peace Chain. The group, who nicknamed themselves Wu Tang Clan :), returned the love with a chant of 'Usha, Usha!' for their lovely server and finished with a virtuoso freestyle rap performance for the entire volunteer crew. One of the group members waved goodbye on his way out, exclaiming, "You guys are the stuff rainbows are made from!" Indeed, a great way to describe the love, compassion, and enthusiasm this particular group served with today. It was a joy to be a part of it.

--Mr. P :) on Nov 2, 2010

Karma Kitchen Video!

Karma Kitchen: Meals Paid for by Those Who Came Before You
--by Toan Loan, Go Inspire Go

Learn generosity at one very special restaurant run by volunteers in California.

karma-cafe.pngWhat would you do if, after dining out, your server says, "There is no charge. Your meal was paid for by the person who came before you"? Yep, that's right, there is nothing, zip, zilch — on your bill. You literally see "$0.00."

In a world and society where we're taught if it's too good to be true, then it's not, that's hard to believe. In this case, you have to feel it, experience it — to believe it.

Every Sunday at The Taste of Himalayas restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., Karma Kitchen is cooking up kindness and generosity across the San Francisco Bay Area. It's a volunteer-run experiment in generosity that is growing. On your zero-dollar and zero-cent bill, there is a kind note that reads: "Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. To keep the chain of gifts alive, we invite you to pay it forward for those who dine after you." Patrons can choose to pay whatever they're moved to offer.

The recipe for this generous idea began three years ago, with Viral and Pavi Mehta and a group of friends.

"It's an excuse to start a conversation about generosity," says Viral, with a kind, genuine and humble voice.

Included in the morning's training session are lots of hugs as approximately a dozen volunteers gather in a circle. They share a moment of silence, introductions and stories of why all the volunteers are spending a Sunday morning to volunteer, greeting, cooking and serving complete strangers.

One volunteer tells me her impetus to give back started one morning when she was rushing out the door to a final exam when her car wouldn't start. A neighbor saw her in distress and offered to give her a ride. Moved by the small act of kindness, she was inspired to pay it forward. When a friend told her about Karma Kitchen, she jumped at the opportunity.

"The volunteers are here to serve, there's no ulterior motive, no paycheck, they want to give back," Pavi says, with passion.

Watch the video below:

This project is just one of several experiments under the umbrella of CharityFocus, an "incubator of gift economy projects that inspires people to be the change they wish to see."

According to founder Nipun Mehta, "a gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given freely, rather than traded. In a market economy, one's wealth is increased by 'saving.' In contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is the circulation of the gifts within the community that leads to increase — increase in connections, increase in relationship strength."

It is hard to put into words the magic, songs and stories of giving shared — that unfold and swirl under the roof of this bustling restaurant when Karma Kitchen is underway; it's infectious. You want to give back, unconditionally.

Come as a volunteer customer and feel for yourself. The smell, the stories and the kindness swirling around will make you hungry to help others and give back. Here's a tip from a soon-to-be-repeat customer:

1. Volunteers, sign up online early as there is a waiting list to serve.
2. Eat at a community table and meet new friends.
3. Visit and receive gifts from the Kindness Table.
4. Say thank you.
5. Pay it forward.
6. Be ready to be inspired to be a chain in the circle of giving.
7. Enjoy!

The generosity is spreading: Karma Kitchens are now also open in Chicago, Illinois and Washington D.C.

Buon appetito & cheers!

--Toan Lam on Nov 1, 2010

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