Pay-What-You-Want Restaurants: What They Are and How They Work

Check out a few facts about how pay-what-you-want restaurants function (and why, even if you can afford to pay full price, you may want to visit one).

You, like me, may not have paid much attention to the particulars of pay-what-you-want restaurants. Perhaps you’re vaguely aware that they exist, but you're unsure of how, precisely, the whole sliding-scale, honor-system concept plays out when put into practice.

Helpfully, Eater has published a blog post called How Do Pay-What-You-Want Restaurants Work?, which explains how eateries like SAME Café, a “pay what you can” restaurant in Denver, pay the bills even though not all customers are paying full price for their meals.

Here are four key facts to take away (no payment necessary):

1. Most pay-what-you-want (PWYW) restaurants look like other regular eateries — with tables, menus, ways to order and places to pay. The difference is that you can pay the amount that you are capable of paying, if you cannot afford to pay full fare, or even work (helping to wash dishes or prep meals, say) in exchange for your food. You can also pay more than the value of your meal, to help defray the cost of those who may need to pay less.

2. Most diners do not try to get their meals for free, instead paying what they can and often paying as much or more as their meals are worth. These restaurants depend on full-paying customers to help offset the cost of serving those who cannot pay full fare.

3. You may not know which people are paying for their meals and which are not — and that is by design. Many of these places are dedicated to providing food that is tasty and healthy to those who can afford it and to those who cannot — and to serving everyone with dignity and building community.

4. Sometimes these restaurants’ costs are offset by grants and donations, and restaurants that offer opportunities for patrons to pay for their meals through work can keep labor costs down, but often that’s not really enough for the restaurants to meet their bottom line and keep their doors open. SAME Café owner Libby Birky tells Eater she believes PWYW restaurants are a way for all of us to demonstrate our “responsibility toward each other as humans.”

Curious about PWYW restaurants — and want to find one in your area? This Guardian-compiled list of PWYW restaurants around the world is a good place to start — and you can find more options here.

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