EAT Cafe works to bring all parts of the community to the dinner table as West Philly’s own pay-what-you-can restaurant.
EAT, which stands for Everyone at the Table, provides a three-course meal, including a drink, priced at around $15. At the end of every meal, patrons receive a check with the suggested amount; however, they are free to pay as much or as little as they choose. Customers are also not expected to leave a tip, as the staff is paid hourly.
Valerie Erwin is the general manager for EAT Cafe. She started working at the cafe after years of restaurant work because of her interest in various food justice issues.
“We’re not feeding the world, we’re not even feeding the neighborhood necessarily,” Irwin said. “But I think that one thing that we can do is offer people who may not be able to go out a place where they can come out, relax and have a meal.”
Unlike many pay-what-you-wish cafes, EAT expects little in return. Customers have the option of paying nothing at all, without an obligation to work or attend the service that some church missions request.
The part food bank, part restaurant wants to do more than feed people, though; it creates the full dining experience with wait staff and a relaxing atmosphere. While many food insecurity programs provide patrons with the food they need, most lack the opportunity to eat out and experience the luxury of not cooking a meal.
Tracy Gibson works as a writer and advocate in Philadelphia. He lives off disability due to his depression, and goes to EAT as many as three times a week. He enjoys the food and the environment.
“It’s just a nice atmosphere” Gibson said, “and that makes a big difference.”
The cafe, which seats 30, is community-based. It sits on Lancaster Avenue at the intersection of seven Philadelphia neighborhoods. It provides cooking classes and workforce readiness training, as well as hosts local events and activities such as Second Friday, Mardi Gras Donuts to Go and community advisory committee meetings. Its stage seating functions as a performance space for events in the community and its walls feature local artwork.
EAT also combats another disparity in food: providing healthy options and selections for various dietary needs. It has a vegan soup and desserts, and recently held a Heart Healthy Week, offering low sodium dishes for its customers.
A partner with Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities, the Vetri Community Partnership and Drexel’s Center for Hospitality and Sports Management, EAT is a group effort. Local businesses such as Greensgrow, La Colombe Coffee and Metropolitan Bakery donate food and the organization applies for grant funding to stay afloat. It also frequently works with Philabundance.
Ideally, though, EAT wants to earn its revenue from customers who pay extra. Though the design is for those struggling with food insecurity, it is a place for all to enjoy and balance the pay gap.
“There’s a certain amount of comfort in coming to a place where maybe not everyone is in dire straits,” Erwin said. “The whole thing is not to separate people in need and have them be part of the community.”
She stresses that they are just like any other restaurant, and all types of consumers should attend due to the quality and delicious taste of the food.
“I worry about a lot of things,” Erwin said, “but the food is not one of them.”
EAT Cafe is located at 3820 Lancaster Avenue and open Wednesday through Friday 4:30-8:00 and Sundays 11:00-2:30. More information can be found at http://www.eatcafe.org/.
Text, images and video by Michaela Althouse and Brianna Baker