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Serving Up Brunch and Good Karma in Washington, D.C.

I haven't had the pleasure of volunteering at Karma Kitchen (KK), but I did have the wonderful pleasure of dining there a few weeks ago. This is my story.

I was not sure what to expect when I heard about a restaurant that had no prices. I was intrigued from an economist’s point of view in that I thought to myself it does not seem possible that such a place can stay in business and/or be very good. Something had to give – either the food couldn’t be tasty enough, the service had to be lousy enough, the location inconvenient or unpleasant, or something else that would make this worth a “no cost menu”. Of course, once you hear that it is a no-cost restaurant started by a non-profit, you lower your expectations to some extent because you realize that it is for a charitable or “good cause”. For most people, including me, no cost often means not very good quality. By the way, I rarely use the word “free” anymore as I have come to appreciate that everything has a cost, even if not in money – these are known as opportunity costs.

Whatever the story behind the operation, KK exceeded my expectations! The ambiance was warm and inviting, the staff very welcoming and attentive, and the food was quite simply delicious. I left wanting to tell everyone I know to head there right away. Even after sharing several helpings of delightful Indian dishes, some great chai, and a surprise piece of cake for dessert, my brunch party and I still could not quite figure out what the secret was to the place.

From our friendly server, we gathered the story behind the restaurant: its volunteer-run, donation-driven operations. Essentially, the money they make in one week pays for the meals for the following week’s guests. Of course I wondered if there had ever been a week that the restaurant could not open because it did not make enough the week before? The server said she couldn’t recall hearing that was the case – but she also acknowledged that this was her first volunteering day.

So how can such an operation exist and even expand? KK now has three locations in different parts of the country and the word is spreading and growing its popularity – I heard that the DC location often has a line of people waiting to get in. Without doing an in-depth research study on the gift economy concept, it is safe to say that KK plays on our sentimentalities a bit – and kudos for it doing so. This is how we get people to buy into our causes and the charities we want them to support. I think people have to feel connected with the charities they support – usually through a direct personal experience or knowing someone with a direct personal experience. Sometimes we can be convinced to support a cause, but I don’t think that is the strongest way to encourage people to give their time, attention, nor their money to any charitable cause. I think there has to be some common experience shared between people for giving to be meaningful and worth it for them. Something about the cause has to speak to you specifically.

On my way to brunch at KK, I was already thinking of what I thought I would be willing to pay given what I would likely pay for any brunch in downtown DC, which depending on where you go can run anywhere from $15 to $25, not including drinks of the alcoholic type. But KK is smart and efficient about managing its costs by limiting seating times (in DC, KK is only open on Sundays from 12 to 3 pm), working with a local restaurant already operating so little overhead costs, not serving alcohol, offering up a fixed menu (though a spicy and flavorful selection), serving small though possibly infinite portions per patron, and realizing that in their generosity to the customer, customers are likely to pay even more than they would for the meal if it had prices.

It is a brilliant concept that incorporates charitable strategies with good business sense – basically, treat people well and they will be willing to pay (at times, quite handsomely) for that good service and warm feeling of doing business with you. Ultimately we all want to feel good about who we are and what we believe in, and if we can do so by also “doing good” for others, then all the better for the rest of us. A common purpose to ensure that KK is there for the next round of diners is the key to KK, I think. After all, any one of us - or someone we know- could be among the next round of diners.  

I’d say run, don’t walk, to try out the KK nearest you and see it for yourself. How much do you think you would be willing to pay for not only a good meal, but also for good karma?

--Roxanne Alvarez on Oct 22, 2010

In Chicago: Eat Free, Pay With Your Conscience

Ron Dicket reports on Wallet Pop ...

Karma Kitchen dinersKarma Kitchen, the restaurant that invites you to eat for free but asks that you give from your heart afterward, is spreading its pay-it-forward goodness. Karma Kitchen opens July 11 at Klay Oven Indian Restaurant in Chicago, hoping to build on its success in Berkeley, Calif., and Washington D.C.

No surprise that it's caught on -- the bill reads $0.00 for hearty Indian vegetarian fare. There are no strings, just a hope that you'll leave something so the next diner can enjoy a meal.
"The essence of Karma Kitchen is really the gift economy, where people benefit from those who have given before them, and they themselves give whatever they are inspired to give, in order to keep the circle of giving in motion," Gaurav Venkateswar, a Chicago volunteer at Karma Kitchen, told WalletPop.

All giving (Karma Kitchen dislikes the word "donation" because it implies charity) goes to purchasing ingredients and paying the chef. The staff are mostly volunteers. Karma Kitchen will operate the second Sunday of each month in Chicago for the time being, as opposed to every Sunday at the other Karma Kitchens.

Nipun Mehta founded Karma Kitchen in Berkeley in 2007, and the movement spread to the nation's capital in 2009. Chicago, Venkateswar said, was a natural to keep kindness cooking across the racial and economic divide.

"Chicago has a diverse population with a number of socially conscious people," he said. "There are certainly many people with whom this idea resonates quite well."

While this WalletPopper loves Karma Kitchen's concept and optimism, I can't resist playing the cynic. What if there are too many freeloaders and not enough folks putting their money where their mouth was?

"If Karma Kitchen gets overwhelmed with patrons that take from the gift-economy without investing anything back into it, then we will have to take a step back and think of strategies to inspire generosity," Venkateswar said.

Chicago's version will serve "thali" (plate in Hindi) style, with a predetermined assortment of dishes served in small bowls or on round plates.

Diners shouldn't forget to satisfy the spirit of Karma Kitchen after they fill their bellies.

Said Venkateswar: "They can choose to pay it forward via contribution towards subsequent weeks' meals, or they may be inspired to give outside of Karma Kitchen, spreading the waves of giving outwards into other communities."

--KK-Chicago on Oct 15, 2010

Three Notes From Today (And New T-shirts!)

In addition to the naan-poem, here's three more inspiring tidbits left on a very inspiring Karma Kitchen Sunday.

First, a great quote:

Then, a collage offered by a very engaged "table of ten":

And lastly a letter that reads:

Dear Karma Kitchen Creators, staff, volunteers, Taste of Himalayas, chefs, patrons, guests, friends, and fans: I give each and everyone of you, my *heartfelt* THANKS! Your generous contributions of service, benevolent thoughts, actions, and speech, have made our community and each other, whole, healthy and strong. May each of you be blessed with love, joy and peace. With gratitude, a Karma Kitchen friend.

Many thanks to the all-veteran crew today! Here's a photo of some of the volunteers in their new tees:

--GM on Oct 3, 2010

Naan-Inspired Poem :)

A poem, left by a guest today:

I could eat naan
All day long
Whilst searching for another way.

Watching all these volunteers give without receiving
Reviving our hope and keeping us believing
They work with a smile
That never leaves their face.

Everyone here really likes their style
Never hurried, never with haste,
Your generosity is infectious,
And the food delicious.

The ferver to help
will spread from here
until no one has reason to shed a tear.

Thank you!

--by Whoever Wants Credit :)

Image of the the hand-written version:

--Sam K. on Oct 3, 2010

Some Special Moments From Sep 26th

Sabina, Tina, Mohit, Laquesha, Pabitra, Laveena, Jeremiah and Neha: thanks for volunteering in DC last week!

Some special moments

  • A little boy and his family came to KK. Their table had a card with the message "practice silence for 15 minutes". The young boy took up the challenge and remained silent for 15 minutes while his father timed him - quite feat for a 6 year old!
  • All our volunteers mentioned they felt an incredible connection with guests and other volunteers. As Lavina said, enjoy your "Karma Kitchen Kick"! Our volunteers Sabina and Pabitra discovered they went to the same school!
  • One of our little guests was tagged with a stuffed toy for daughter's day when her mother remarked "everyday is daughters day"
  • We surprised our chef Shaila with a birthday cake, which was also dessert for the day. More surprisingly every guests and volunteers got a bite of it
  • Guests loved the mini Karma Kitchen post office we set up on the kindness table. Several guests wrote handwritten notes to a loved one. Thank you Laquesha, for mailing these out!
  • Some of the comments by guest touched the volunteers so deeply and felt really blessed to be part of the small act of generosity which impacted somebody so much

Some guest comments:

  • Thankyou!! What a delicious meal and a wonderful idea! Everyone is so welcoming - you embody generosity - thankyou for having us!
  • Absolutely one of the best meals Ive ever had! What a treat!
  • Thanks Laquetia for being so warm and friendly to me, I've had one of the worst weeks of my life, which makes the kindness of strangers all the more touching.
  • The food was great - I wasted too much of it - but I ate well and am grateful for this place
  • What a wonderful way of reminding everyone that an act of kindness can save lives just by making one feel worthy of being the object of that kindness. Thanks to the restaurant for giving up its sunday sales.
  • Excellent, as usual. Love the portion size - so easy for one person to finish. Delicious start to my sunday. Thankyou for welcoming solo diners with their own table!
  • This is always a blessing. I am going through some rough times and as always lifted when I enter here.
  • I love your veggie balls!! Thanks for the meal and the good feel.
  • Karma Kitchen is the #1 reason I come to DC! Thank you, it was amazing as usual!

Thank you, all!

--Krishna & Sala on Oct 3, 2010


This idea is great I thought the first time I went into Karma kitchen.I ate a wonderful meal and met some very interesting people ... I paid a generous amount enough to fund several meals in the future, but one week I was greeted at the door by a volunteer who made me feel like a bum ... He singled me and my friend out and made a very intense point about how everyone MUST give something as if we were there to eat for free and give nothing... My Question is this -- what if someone comes and has NO money??? Is my gift relevant if only those with such abundance can eat?? I don't like the idea of a so called "gift economy" if only wealthy North Berkeley paople get to reap the benefits...This should be a resource to all people broke or not otherwise it is just another form of buy and sell society; in fact it is worse because those who don't have alot are psychologically pressured to pay more than they can reasonably afford.

[Response from KK: Dear Friend, your point is valid; however, KK can only sustain itself if everyone contributes. It is different from a soup-kitchen model, where an external agency funds the operation; here it is a chain of generosity. When people operate in this way, it connects them with each other and creates a new dimension of value. Naturally, we are a humble experiment and can't be all things to all people -- but for the existing restaurant-going population, such an experiment introduces them to a culture of sharing. It is our hope that such positivity, although limited in its early manifestations, generates more momentum for catalyzing solutions that address the deeper inequities in our society.]

--karma on Oct 3, 2010

Smiles to my younger brother

I just wanted to tell my experience of extending the good will I recieved at Karma Kitchen into my life.  I picked up a smile card from the restaurant and found the idea of it fascinating; to give a card telling someone to smile.  This past week my brother was in a very bad mood because he had recieved a bad grade in class.  He began to take his anger out on me by calling me names.  Instead of fighting back and arguing like I usually do, I gave him the smile card.  At first he was like "What is this!".  But later he called down and thanked me for my kindness.



--Bradley Sanborn on Sep 28, 2010

From Toll Booth to Karma Kitchen!

One of the understated hallmarks of Karma Kitchen is the opening volunteer circle.  We sit in silence for a few minutes, do a circle of introduction and stories, go through the menu and the entire process, split into various roles, and do micro-orientations for new folks.  All in an hour.  Because everyone is a volunteer, there are no walls (ie. egos) and its amazing how much gets synched up in that one hour ... without even realizing it!

I've volunteered once before at Karma Kitchen.  Last Sunday was my second time.

In the opening circle, people shared great stories.  Then, we got to Jane.  "Hi, my name is Jane.  I came to Karma Kitchen, maybe three years ago, in the older location in South Berkeley.   I came as a guest, but then never got around to volunteering.  Then, last Friday night, I was crossing the Dumbarton bridge and the toll booth attendant hands me a Smile Card and says to me that the car into front of me had paid for my toll and I may like to pay-it-forward.  I was so stunned, I didn't even know what to do.  But then, I realized where I had seen those Smile Cards before -- Karma Kitchen!  So I logged on and signed up, and here I am."

It's amazing how kindness ripples, and sometime comes full circle.  Another volunteer goes next.  And I followed.

Suddenly, I realized that I was on Dumbarton last Friday night.  Could it be?  I turn to Jane and ask, "Was that Friday night, around 7:30PM, when you were tagged with a Smile Card, by any chance?"  Jane takes a moment, as everyone inches forward to speculate the obvious.  "YES!"  No way.  The young woman next to me put her palms on her all-of-a-sudden-red cheeks.  After exchanging a few details, it is clear: my wife and I had paid toll for the car behind us, which was indeed Jane's car!

Wow.  [silence] One magnificent stroke of serendipity like that can really wake you up sometimes.

Orientation hour soon ended, guests started coming in at 11AM, and one couldn't help but imagine the invisible strands of connection that may ripple out of this Karma Kitchen day.

--MD on Sep 27, 2010

Bellarmine College Prep students visit Karma Kitchen



Recently I started bringing my World Religions class to Karma Kitchen as realistic and practical response to the what we learn in the classroom.  Students are typically amazed by the gracious hospitality and generous amounts of food served weekly.  They're also amazed an experience like this is free and paid for by someone they've never met.  Here's a couple ways they paid it forward:

The same day after going to Karma Kitchen, I was hanging out with my Sam Goldstein. His brother Noah was having problems with his bike, and since I have mechanic experience I put it up on my repair stand and spent some time fixing it for him. I didn't even realize that I was paying it forward until Sam mentioned it, and put a "smile card" in Noah's spokes. Hopefully the card travels far as people keep helping each other.

Brian Cunningham

The most recent good deed, to the best of my recollection, involved a freshman runner and Mr. Kniffin.  We were running back from 5th bridge on an unresonably hot day, and they were flagging fairly rapidly.  To get their minds off of it, I chatted with them for the entire run.  It made the practice go faster and didn't take much extra effort on my part but seemed to make a difference for them.

Kyle Rae

--Paul Spitzmueller on Sep 22, 2010

Fall Resolutions

Our theme for the day was -- Fall Resolutions (for the next 3 months, what we ourselves envision ourselves doing for ourselves and others, to make a positive difference in the world). 

Here's what diners shared (listed in no particular order):

"I want to work at a camp for the disabled before Thanksgiving!"  --Joe M.

"Get more sleep - I'm nicer and more active when I'm rested, and run faster to boot.  The only way I can achieve" (cut off; ended abrubtly; unfinished?  Maybe we can create our own endings for this).  :)

"Life is beautiful - I should recognize that more often."

"I will look for a volunteer opportunity in my town (San Diego)."

"I am going to start donating massage to Veterans of Foreign Wars at least twice a month." 

"What will I do to change the world?...
I will meditate more, actively being present to here & now.
I will teach compassion more compassionately to my students & wider circles.
I will attempt to live "Namaste."  --Paul

"Make people blush.  :)"

"Living in
the moment
to breath"

"...taking every chance to broaden your horizon."

"living in the moment...the cure for all sorts of distractions!"

"It's time to stop saying what is wrong with the world, stop saying that it must be fixed, and start actually working to make change.  Stop talking, start acting.  I shall act upon the words have spoken.  Volunteer, be generous.
Educate others on pollution.
Work to improve the environment.
Change others' views on the world.
Let others change my view on the world.
Explore the unknown."

"Read more books on my own
finish writing songs & make them mean something
Do art every day"

"I need to be more accepting to other cultures.  I need to open my horizons but [by] eating at different cultural restaurants and just experiencing other cultures."

"Show more compassion for everyone I meet, be more outwardly emotional."

"How will I contribute to this world? 
- will try to eat less non-veg.

How will I improve my living?
- I will join yoga."  --Neha

"I resolve to live life with authenticity and kindness."

"I want to help people discover and enjoy cool things right where they live - so that everytime they want a break they don't feel the need to fly to another part of the world..."

"I will donate more to charities that support animals and the environment, I shall make the donation in honor of my family and friends."

"1.  Not use soap with antibiotics to avoid building up resistance.
2.  I am elderly and want to keep my posture walking because it may help us agains early onset of dementia."

"I want to help build awareness about the massive climate impacts of aviation (including to places I love, like India) through lectures and teach-ins.  It's not enough to be a good person; we need to understand the consequences of our choices."

"I will be content and make positive gestures, actions for the benefit of all.
be my own love
and share it. 

"- When I am working (as a waitress) I will try to remove my "ego" from the work and greet people from a place of awareness and not from my role as a "waitress."  I will try to work without focusing on the $ and not take personally the customers who are less aware...

-Take time for self-care."

"Be aware and open to others thoughts/beliefs/cultures
Strive to be open to new people and try to make a new friend every day
Talk to as many people as I can in order to expand my boundaries
Experience as much as I possibly can every single day!"

A card To Karma Kitchen (front shows Woodstock talking to Snoopy in his birdtalk and Snoopy replying, "Really?") wrapped in a WWF calendar page showing 2 tigers:
"5 September 2010
There was a mountain lion in Berkeley...

Dear Karma Kitchen Creators, staff, chefs, volunteers, guests, patrons, friends & fans:
THANK YOU for your service and positive words, actions and attitudes that make Karma Kitchen a loving place to be!  I'm sending LOVE to each of you. 
May we cherish every living being, even the mountain lion, that was killed in Berkeley.  All Life is precious.  Thanks for feeding us, Karma Kitchen!  3 hearts ~A FRIEND~"

Some cool server names from today and past KK meals (in no particular order):
Unconditional Love
Sillyness All over
Whole lot of sillyness


Thanks for the opportunity to serve together -- I had lots of fun, and it was a pleasure and an honor to meet so many good-hearted friends.

--Varsha on Sep 21, 2010

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