Does 'Pay-What-You-Want' Mean the Meal Is Free?

restaurant billPicture this: You order a meal at your favorite restaurant. Then, when the bill comes, you realize: You can pay whatever you like!

Believe it or not, this scenario happens at many restaurants nationwide. Several independent pay-what-you-wish restaurants -- many supporting non-profit organizations -- have been in operation for years. Even national chain Panera Bread has opened multiple pay-what-you-wish locations across the country. Now, the trend is extending into fine dining as well; the concept is being touted as another way to turn slow business periods into money makers.

But can restaurants profit using the pay-what-you-want model? Do patrons really pay a fair price for their meal? Better question: Would you pay? How much?


Pay-what-you-want restaurants have different philosophies behind their payment strategy. The One World, Everybody Eats cafe in Salt Lake City subscribes to a "community kitchen" philosophy. They believe in food justice and that all people should be fed, regardless of their ability to pay. Individuals can choose to volunteer in the kitchen to pay for their food, and some choose to pay more than the suggested "price" of their meal to help offset the costs for those who can't pay.

Panera Cares operates the same way. Though the non-profit cafes look and feel just like a regular Panera cafe, here patrons can choose to volunteer instead of pay for a meal, and prices listed on the menu are mere suggestions.

Another St. Louis restaurant, Southern-inspired bistro Monarch, views "pay-what-you-like" as a business strategy to drum up customers during the traditionally slow month of January. Diners must pay their beverage bill in full but, when it comes to food, can pay whatever they think their dishes were worth. This works for restaurants because alcohol is often their most profitable area, so they hope diners are inspired to drink more if they're paying less for their food.

I really dig the idea of letting diners decide what their meal was worth. Moreover, I support a restaurant whose food ethics match mine and wants to provide food and dignity for all patrons, regardless of their opportunity to pay. When it comes right down to it, I'd probably over-pay when I could.

But when it comes to nicer restaurants, my comfort level with the concept gets trickier. I actually go to Monarch relatively frequently and would have no problem paying my food bill in full there. However, if the restaurant was one I was unfamiliar with, and the food was crap, I'm not sure I'd have the courage to actually pay what my food was worth.

In some ways, it's kind of daring diners to put bad manners on display, don't you think?

Have you visited a pay-what-you-like restaurant? Did you pay "full-price"?


Image via consumerist/Flickr

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