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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

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