Does “Buy Local” Work? Does It Need To?

Brian Brown

“Brad loved to cook. He even went to culinary school, just for fun. He never wanted to run an ordinary restaurant, though. Then one day while killing time on a plane trip, he and his wife, Libby, devised a plan that they hoped would change their lives and maybe a few others.

“They decided to open a restaurant that served fresh, organic, gourmet foods. They’d find a location convenient for people who have little access to anything beyond fast foods. And they would run it entirely on donations. They called it the ‘pay-what-you-can-afford model.’” (Full article:

A small trend seems to be starting: nonprofit restaurants. The idea is to blend the social awareness of a soup kitchen with the services of a restaurant, involving the community in local philanthropy while providing a high-quality service to everybody. My first reaction was that it sounded crazy, but unlike some of the more theoretical and ideological localists, the people doing this have real business plans in place.

What is particularly interesting about these restaurants is that they are a hybrid between capitalism and charity. Most “buy local” campaigns try to convince you to do so out of the goodness of your heart. (Why should you buy local? Well, because you should.) Many hard-nosed business owners and economists warn that such things won’t be able to compete until, well, they’ll be able to compete. Only this weekend, The Wall Street Journal noted stats that indicated the plethora of “buy local” campaigns don’t often provide a lasting value to businesses. Unlike these charity- or ideology-driven PR campaigns, nonprofit restaurants–while technically depending on donations (particularly from customers who intentionally overpay for their meals)–can offer food and atmosphere that draw customers in a businesslike way.

But is it working? Stephanie South dives deeper into the SAME (So All May Eat) Cafe in Denver:

“Over and over the Birkys saw many of the same kind of people coming in and out of the soup kitchen—those who were not actively trying to make changes in their lives. They were also very discouraged with the quality and lack of variety of food being served. Out of these initial thoughts came the idea of a nonprofit restaurant that would be founded on treating people with respect and serving them with dignity. Not only would their organization target a niche market that was “slipping through the cracks,” as Libby put it, but it would serve meals made with the highest quality ingredients and give people a choice about what they wanted to eat.

“SAME Café, which the Birkys opened a little over four years ago, is a restaurant run entirely on donations that has served over 60,000 meals since inception. It operates on what Brad and Libby call a “pay-what-you-can-afford” model and provides gourmet meals–made from fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients that are bought from local farmers and wholesalers–to those who need a little help getting by.”

Except, it turns out, this isn’t just a localist thing. Panera has a few locations doing this too, and rumor has it that daily takes are similar to those at the for-profit locations. Some people eat for little or nothing, but better-off customers often give $100 or more–it’s not often someone can feel good about himself just for eating lunch. On some level, nonprofit restaurants offer a chance for community commitment. But on another level, they can also be a way for busy suburbanites to give money instead of time or relationships.

So: the nonprofit restaurant. Crazy, or brilliant? Localist, or not? Time will help with those questions. In the meantime, there’s a comment button below.

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