Since its opening in 2007, Karma Kitchen has employed an unusual business model. At the end of every meal, the diners at the restaurant receive a bill for $0. A handwritten note explains that their meal was paid for by the previous customers, and they are invited to “keep the chain of gifts alive” by leaving a donation for the next diner’s meal.
Karma Kitchen is located in Berkeley, California in another restaurant (the Taste of the Himalayas). On most days, this Indian restaurant functions like a regular restaurant. On Sunday afternoons, however, it is transformed into an experiment in trust and generosity. The owner of the restaurant donates his space and cooking staff to Karma Kitchen, and a staff of volunteers serve the lunchtime meal. The donations from restaurant patrons cover the cost of the food and the cooking staff, and any extra money is donated to similar charitable causes.
By many accounts, Karma Kitchen has been a success. They’ve opened new branches in Chicago and Washington D.C., and they’re piloting a program in Tokyo, Japan. Guests of the restaurant have been so moved by the experience that they’ve become regular volunteers. The Berkeley location is closed temporarily for re-strategizing, but until their retreat they’d been open for five years and regularly served between 100-150 people per meal.
In theoretical terms, Karma Kitchen has transformed the restaurant from a price system of exchange -- one based on fixed prices and the goal of maximizing profits -- to a moral system that subordinates economic self-interest to ethical principles. In a price-based system of exchange, actors utilize instrumental rationality (i.e., they weigh options according to criteria such as cost minimization, profit maximization, and efficiency). Conversely, in a moral system of exchange, actors employ substantive rationality -- their decisions are oriented toward a particular end (such as redistributing wealth or environmental stewardship) and they seek to align their economic action with that value or ethical standard.
The volunteers at Karma Kitchen don’t assume that restaurant guests are autonomous individuals seeking the lowest price for their food; instead, they invite guests to join a community of giving while trusting that their donations will cover the restaurant’s operation costs. On their website, Karma Kitchen describes the transition this way: “It is a shift from consumption to contribution, transaction to trust, scarcity to abundance, and isolation to community.” The ethic underlying exchange at Karma Kitchen may be that everyone deserves to eat regardless of ability to pay.
Karma Kitchen is one of a handful of pay-what-you-want pricing systems. Several other restaurants, including Lentil as Anything in Melbourne, Australia and One World Everybody Eats in Salt Lake City, Utah, invite guests to pay what they can afford. When Radiohead released their album In Rainbows in 2007, they allowed customers to download the music for whatever price they wanted -- including for free. All of these enterprises are examples of a “gift economy,” a term used by social scientists for exchanges of goods and services without the expectation of renumeration. In his seminal essay The Gift, sociologist Marcel Mauss explained that gift exchanges serve to strengthen human relationships. He argued that gifts, although freely given, create a sense of obligation in the receiver and usually give rise to reciprocal exchange. These acts of giving and receiving create social bonds between the actors and build solidarity.
Although Karma Kitchen is too small to be a significant challenge to the dominant market economy, this restaurant offers an opportunity for patrons and volunteers to experiment with new forms of exchange and build a community around generosity and trust. These acts may be small, but the founders of Karma Kitchen hope they will ripple throughout society as people “pay it forward.”
- Biggart, Nicole and Rick Delbridge. (2004). “Systems of Exchange.” Academy of Management Review 29(1): pp. 33-35.
- Mauss, Marcel. (2002). The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies. London: Routledge.
Image from Karma Kitchen (http://www.karmakitchen.org).