A Magazine about the Hudson Valley’s local economy, published by Hudson Valley Current.

Food Activism with a Gourmet Flair: The Mid-Hudson Valley’s First Pay-What-You-Can Restaurant

by Anne Pyburn Craig   

Diners at the October pop-up cafe. Photo by S. Mitrovich.
For the next several months, Beacon residents and visitors can enjoy exquisitely crafted locavore meals while being among the first in New York State to occupy a joyful front line in the Food Revolution, as the Fareground Café “pops up” each month at Beacon’s Community Resource Center. Founders are hoping to make the café a permanent feature of the Beacon landscape.

“When I first read about pay-what-you-can, I thought, ‘That’s a great idea but it will never work as a business model!’” says co-founder Margot Schulman. “But I did some more research. Panera Bread has several cafés they run this way, and they were doing just fine. They had run the numbers and found that about half the people paid the suggested price, a quarter paid more, and a quarter paid less. They aren’t losing.”

Some people seem outraged by the very idea. “Sorry to suck the fun out of the pay-as-you-wish idea, but everyone, ideally, should pay market value for goods and services, whether or not the manager has the right to call the police after you leave,” rants an etiquette blogger on SmarterTravel of her experience at a Panera Cares café. “The pay-as-you-wish scheme is a myth. No reasonable person desires to part with his money. You’re never really paying what you want.”

She sadly misses the point, but lots of others don’t. Many cultural and community events have long operated on a pay-what-you-can or “suggested donation” basis. Pay-what-you-can has long been the rule at Manhattan’s great museums, and is a growing trend in theatre. A blogger at Innovation Excellence cites the practice as one of “nine ways to innovate with monetization.” And Fareground, while it may well be breaking new ground in New York State, is part of a burgeoning international movement of restaurateurs called One World Everybody Eats, and their progress is as real as it gets.

One World Everybody Eats (OWEE) started with a café in Salt Lake City operated by Denise Ceratta, who began the pay-what-you-can practice and soon found herself called away frequently to consult with others who wanted to emulate her success. Today, there are over 30 cafés up and running and 10 more in the development stage.

These are not soup kitchens. “In many of our member establishments, you wouldn’t even realize you were eating at a pay-what-you-can place until it came time to pay the bill,” says Bob Pearson, chairman of the board at OWEE. “We expect members to be on a competitive level with the good cafés and eateries in their community. Soup kitchens have value, but unfortunately the surplus and donated food isn’t always of the highest nutritional quality or all that appealing. We believe everyone should have access to nourishing, delicious meals made from fresh local ingredients, not just stuff left over from a Sysco truck.”

Nourishing, delicious, fresh and local is what Schulman and her partners are serving up, to a community where 50% of children are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals – and artists’ live/work lofts rent for $1360 a month and up. It’s those demographics, and everyone in between, that the Fareground hopes to draw.

On one level, Schulman’s vision is one that a great many chefs would instantly recognize. “Every town has ‘that’ place where everybody goes,” she says, “a community place that people love because it feels like it’s partly theirs. I’ve always had a vision, as a chef, of creating that place.”

When she put that dream together with the pay-what-you-can concept and started talking about it, a sisterhood emerged.  “Kara (Dean-Assael) and I were acquaintances through our kids; she’s a social worker and a researcher. I told her about this and she wanted to research it, and the more she did, the more she realized she wanted to be in on it,” says Schulman. “Tara (Bernstein), our lawyer, lives around the corner from me; she took some time off from practicing to be with her kids, and she’d been telling her friends she wanted to get involved with nonprofits and grant writing. She’s a foodie and a supermom, and she helped us get the budget in order and get super-organized.”

Part of Schulman’s prep was field work. She visited several OWEE cafés in Denver, and the highest profile pay-what-you-can restaurant in the bunch, Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New Jersey. “What a beautiful experience!” she says. “I brought my kids there. The mood is incredible—everyone is happy and grateful. The food is really good. It was lovely.”

Fareground has been doing “pop-up” events in Beacon and Poughkeepsie for three years and getting a good response. Now they’ve taken the next step, committing to provide lunch on the last Sunday of the month at Beacon’s Community Resource Center for six months. “I’m excited to be there,” says Schulman. “It’s a great big gymnasium in a very walkable location, and it feels like a really good fit for us.”

The first BCRC meal took place in September 2014, and featured baked spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce, local ground beef, sautéed greens and cheese, and a gluten-free choice with baked spaghetti squash instead of pasta. A kale salad with arugula and roasted eggplant were among the sides. “The first one went really great—I got tons of positive feedback. Everyone liked the food, and as the chef, I was really happy about that. I put a lot of pressure on myself—the food has to be really good in order to draw people who will pay the suggested donation or pay it forward by chipping in a little more.”
As with any dining out experience, the atmosphere is all-important. “It has to not feel stigmatized,” says Schulman. “And it’s going to take some time to build trust with the people who are food insecure. We’re doing outreach through some of the religious organizations and putting up fliers at the food pantries.”

There is a suggested donation of $10 for a Fareground meal, which is not much more than the cost of a salad alone at most mid-range Beacon lunch spots. Patrons are welcome to pay more, pay less, or swap an hour’s labor for a meal. That’s part of the essential OWEE formula, and chairman Bob Pearson says that member cafés commit to several other important principles. “There is no fixed menu, so that cafés can serve local and organic food in season as much as possible,” he says. “But there are choices. Many places have vegan and gluten-free options but they need to have choices for omnivores, too. And people can choose portion sizes instead of just being served a gigantic plate. They can always have more, but we find it cuts down greatly on waste.”

There’s a method to providing the intangible value-added, as well. “Members have community tables, so people are seated with people they don’t know yet,” Pearson says. “And they need to build a mixed volunteer base, not just of people who are working for meal vouchers but of regulars who are donating their time and expertise. Inexperienced volunteers learn from the experienced ones. The kitchen becomes a place of mentoring.”

“The first time,” says Schulman, “we fed fifty people. Last month, the first time in [BCRC], we fed seventy. We hope for at least seventy-five this time.” At press time, Schulman was busy prepping for the October edition: butternut squash soup with spiced pear sauce, seasonal slaw, assorted frittatas with roasted potatoes and greens, and buttermilk biscuits with homemade peach jam and whipped goat cheese. Kids are always welcome; activities and music occupy them and allow their parents a priceless, peaceful meal.

If community support continues, the café will be looking for a permanent home.”My dream space would have a really nice kitchen with plenty of room, and would be on a plot of enough land to grow our own stuff,” says Schulman. “The kind of place where you walk in and are surrounded by good smells: fresh coffee, baking bread, everything warm and delightful and welcoming. Where you see all kinds of people and feel immediately at home and comfortable.”

The Beacon community appears to be ready for Fareground; Schulman says a lot of volunteers are emerging. “So far we have had a really good response,” she says. “In the beginning I got some lukewarm reactions from some Main Street businesses. Some see anything new as a threat…I’m not sure exactly what the issues are. I would love to have those conversations so we could work things out. I didn’t understand it when I first read about it, so I’m very able to help others work through that same process. It’s a new idea, and any new idea will get people nervous.”

This new idea is firmly grounded in certain ancient and evident truths. “People in need need food that’s delicious and healthy—it gives them the strength to carry on,” Schulman observes. “And eating together breaks down the distance that creates stigma. Throughout the world, throughout history, we come together around food.” Like any gift economy, Fareground’s success will depend on the reciprocity, goodwill, and trust of the surrounding community.
This month’s Fareground feast will take place on Sunday, November 30, from 12-3pm.