The Perks of Life café in Eagle, Bread of Life Community Deli in Meridian and Kind Cuisine Café in Boise have a few things in common.
They are local eateries that consciously don rose-colored glasses when they look at the world.
They attract customers who similarly make choices based on what they think is best for the world — whether by eating plant-based food or paying it forward by helping a neighbor get a free cup of coffee.
They all have tried the no-price approach to retailing — a movement that is making headlines around the country for allowing customers to pay what they feel is appropriate.
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One of the establishments is new to the approach, and it is busy. One is selective about it, setting aside part of its menu. The third just gave up its pay-what-you-want plan after 13 months because it became financially unsustainable.
1. THE PERKS OF LIFE RETURNS TO FIXED PRICES
“I didn’t have enough people willing to pay a little extra to cover people who were underpaying,” said Heather Andrade, who has owned the café at State Street and Iron Eagle Drive in Eagle for eight years. She erased all her menu prices in mid-2014. “It was really rough the last few months.”
One big hindrance to breaking even with a menu that has no prices was that it stressed out customers, she said. They wanted a price, or even just a suggested price. They got what could be called tip anxiety, when a person isn’t sure what to pay.
“Most people just would freak out about it,” she said.
She remembers a few customers who overpaid. Her brother would drop $20 on the counter whenever he came in for a coffee. A couple of people in the first few months would pay $50 for a coffee and pastry.
Other customers seemed to have heard about the new price structure and intentionally took advantage of it.
What ruled the day, though, were not the big underpayers or overpayers. It was “the majority of people underpaying by 50 cents or a dollar,” she said.
And it took a little bit of denial to keep up the nonpricing effort through August.
“I didn’t want to drive myself crazy every day looking at it in detail, because honestly, I think I would’ve stopped sooner,” she said.
Andrade ended up taking some money out of a personal loan to cover costs, and it will take her a few months of regular pricing to dig out of that, she said.
Her business has five employees and about $200,000 to $215,000 in annual gross sales. It now includes prices on its café menu. A 20-ounce drip coffee is $2.35, a scone is $2.95 and a 12-ounce latte is $3.
2. BREAD OF LIFE’S GOAL: LUNCH FOR EVERYONE
In another Boise suburb, Cameron McCown just switched his deli to a similar no-price approach.
After a career in the military and in banking, McCown bought a sandwich shop at Franklin and Linder roads in Meridian two years ago and later turned it into Bread of Life Community Deli. Since May 5, the deli has served customers without mentioning price — unless the customer asks for some guidance, which is rare.
“It is our goal to make sure everyone in Meridian, and eventually everyone in the Treasure Valley, eats lunch every day,” he said.
About 60 percent to 65 percent of customers end up paying the market rate for the food they order, McCown said. At least as many overpay as underpay, he said.
“We feed a business community in suits and a homeless community on a weekly basis, in the same location, at the same time,” he said. “I felt like, in the banking industry, I wasn’t doing enough personally to help out or give back. ... I couldn’t really help people, and I equate feeding people to loving people.”
McCown does worry about whether the business will stay profitable — it hasn’t yet lost money, though he says a national media spotlight on Bread of Life might have bolstered its success so far. One thing that gives him confidence: Bread of Life has 15 to 20 volunteers every week whose contributions help offset the deli’s costs. The deli asks people who cannot pay the price they think is fair to volunteer for an hour and earn a meal.
3. KIND CUISINE’S ‘PLATE BANK’
In Boise just on the cusp of Garden City, the new vegetarian eatery Kind Cuisine Café opened last fall, in the Collister Shopping Center on State Street, with a “plate bank” that now extends to a portion of its menu. The restaurant has 18 employees, including the owner and management. It serves from 500 to 1,000 customers each week.
Front-of-house supervisor Rae Thiebert said that when she started working at Kind Cuisine in February, she wondered whether she would feel skeptical about customers choosing to pay less than they truly could afford. But she has been impressed with customers’ generosity and enjoys being able to serve healthy meals to customers who can afford to pay just a few pennies.
“There are people who will put down 20 bucks for the plate bank” in addition to paying for their meals, she said. “We’re about kindness and building community around good food and health habits, and that includes interpersonal healthy habits. So that means being there for members of the community who aren’t always at their financial best.”
The Kind Cuisine lunch menu includes a “cultivate a plate of generosity” option — a grain, a vegetable, a sauce and a plant protein.
At the regular menu price, lunch runs in the $7 to $10 range.
“We invite you to pay as much as possible to help pay for food cost and the staff who prepare this delicious and nutritious meal,” the restaurant tells customers. “We provide a plate bank, offering a meal to those who are unable to pay.”
It’s catching: A customer walked in the door Sept. 4 and started a “pay it forward” coffee fund — patrons prepay for a coffee or two whenever they can, and other customers cash in when they are short on funds.
Kind Cuisine doesn’t keep track of whether customers’ chosen payments end up covering the cost of the “cultivate a plate” meal orders, which number a handful each day, Thiebert said.
Andrade praises the Kind Cuisine approach. She thinks it was a smart business decision to go the pay-what-you-can route with a portion of the menu instead of the whole thing.
Even though it didn’t work out for The Perks of Life, it did achieve a few of the coffee shop’s goals, Andrade said. Customers thought about the real cost and value of what they were buying, they took a moment in the morning to consider their socioeconomic status, and in a few cases customers showed their gratitude for the program “with a hug, or tears in their eyes, or an email,” she said.
McCown said his deli’s goal is to build on his customers’ generosity, applying it to more than food. He wants to develop a work-training program for people with barriers to employment, offering them jobs and support, and advocating for their employment with other restaurant owners in the area.
“We want to build people and not just sandwiches,” he said. “We want to transform lives and not just sustain them.”