Restaurant's rule: Pay what you can
October 27, 2013 1:20 AM

YORK — A sidewalk winds past the front entrance of the First Moravian Church on North Duke Street to an innocuous side door, tucked near the rear of the building in York.

Inside, you’ll find a roomful of people gathered for a mid-week lunch — lawyers, office workers, mothers and friends. But the crowd — and the eatery — is a little different than what you might find at some of the other sandwich shops along Market and North George Streets.

It starts with the menu — falafel, cheese quiche with winter greens and mushrooms, turkey and cranberry salad and two types of soup made with locally sourced ingredients, said Victor Neubaum, who works in the city and is a regular customer.

“You’d never get this in a restaurant,” he said. “I never get this at home.”

There’s the portion size, too. You can sample a bit of everything if you’d like, Annie Haines said as she ate lunch with two friends.

And then there’s the price. You simply pay what you can.

The caf← isn’t a restaurant with just a bottom line in mind — although the nonprofit has operated in the black at every lunch it has served — it’s an experiment in finding local solutions to food insecurity, said Patrick Walker, vice chairman of the organization.

About 80 percent of diners pay the suggested price of the meal or more. Twenty percent pay less or nothing at all. Instead of cash, they chip in volunteer hours or find other ways to give something in return for the food.

Payment in any form is as vital to the operation as money.

The caf← depends on volunteers to serve its monthly lunch, and “we want them to believe and understand their contributions are just as valuable,” Walker said.

The organization has been expanding and tinkering with its system since the idea was developed in 2010.

At first, “we were just popping up everywhere” — setting up booths at events like Go Green in the City and the annual Mother’s Day street fair, Walker said. Then, the group found a temporary home where it could open on a regular basis at the Moravian Lunch Room in 2012.

It allowed “us to see if the model would work and build our capacity,” Walker said. In the last year and a half, the caf← has been able to do both, and Walker hopes that the nonprofit will be able to move into its own space by next fall, putting it closer to the eventual goal of serving lunch six days a week.

“Working together makes things happen,” and it’s allowed the operation to grow at a sustainable pace, he said. On average, between 100 and 120 people pass through the caf← doors when it opens every fourth Wednesday of the month. Some months, volunteers have seen so many customers that they’ve run out of food.

As a line grew in the raucous, warm room Wednesday, Lisa Leonard, who, with her husband, joined Neubaum for lunch, said the caf← gives people a chance to come together over a meal; there’s a sense of fellowship among the diners who share space at the long tables.

“It’s a good, new tradition,” she said.

Walker hopes that’s what is ahead for the caf← — a permanent place in the community.

“We want to be here for the long-term,” he said.

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