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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

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