The server brings the check, you look over it to make sure you were charged correctly, and put down your card to pay. It is a process that has been ingrained in our culture and practiced on a regular basis, but there’s a Fort Worth, Texas restaurant that does things a little differently. At Taste Community Restaurant, when that bill comes in, you pay what you can — even if it’s nothing at all.
The nonprofit restaurant has a hyper awareness that hard times can hit anyone, at any time. During these hard times, you'll look at your upcoming bills, do the mental math with whatever is left in your bank account, and suddenly, a meal might feel like a luxury.
Chef Jeff Williams knows the feeling of not knowing where your next meal will come from, as it was something he experienced growing up. With his father and family financially impacted by a grocery strike, budgeting had to come into play, and it often impacted his family’s meals.
“My sister and I never really went without food,” Williams said. “But I was old enough to see the impact it had on my parents. I saw that they would go without meals.”
With his childhood in mind, Williams wanted Taste Community Restaurant to be a safe haven for those who are in need, without stigmas being attached to it, as they often are at soup kitchens or meal centers.
“You can walk into this place and the person at the table next to you… doesn’t have to know your situation,” Williams said about his restaurant.
The pay-what-you-can model is set up so that every diner is given the opportunity to eat a chef-driven meal, regardless of their ability to pay for it or not.
When you take a seat at Taste Community Restaurant and peruse the menu, the first thing you notice is that nothing is priced. Not even suggested prices are listed.
When the bill comes to your table, you still look over what you ordered, yet there is no need to check that you were charged correctly, as that aspect is up to you.
The receipt comes with a little card explaining the pay system, letting you know of the following:
“Our menu has no prices, not because we’re fancy, but because we ask our guests to pay what you can. Those in need and those wanting to help are not segregated, in order to create an environment that is approachable and refreshing.
“Simply write in your total donation amount at the bottom of your check receipt. We don’t accept tips, but you can include an additional donation in lieu of a tip on your check receipt.”
The impact of being able to pay what you can has already been felt in the lives of many over the last year and a half, and it shows as customers regularly thank Williams and the staff for their meals.
The restaurant shared a note from an anonymous diner, that read:
"Thank you so much for helping us get a meal while we're struggling. When things are easier, I will be happy to contribute as much as I can. God bless. Thank you for sharing such selfless love to the community."
The staff says these messages come frequently, quietly written on the back of receipts, as thankful customers show their appreciation.
Williams has opened the minds of the Fort Worth community, providing an experience that isn’t very common in the restaurant industry. Even knowing that 75% of the restaurant operates like any typical restaurant, the idea of serving the needy usually comes with “soup kitchen” stigma, which Williams tried to steer clear of.
“There was always a handful… who didn’t understand what was going on, and expressed some worries of this place becoming soup kitchen-like,” Williams said. “We knew that wasn’t what was necessarily going to happen. Some of those very people are now some of our best customers."
The menu itself consists of locally sourced products, and changes quarterly. There are three paid chefs on-hand, while groups of volunteers come in to take the roles of servers and hosts.
That very menu has curbed the hate and doubt, as the actual quality of the food leaves even the loudest hater realizing that they are in a quality, chef-driven restaurant, and nothing close to a soup kitchen.
Taste Community was named to Yelp’s 2019 Top 100 restaurants in the country, coming in at No. 74 and sporting a shiny 5-star rating on the popular crowd sourced forum. They even rank 27th on Yelp’s Top 100 Places To Eat In Texas. With over 50,000 restaurants across the Lone Star State, in less than two years Taste has already left quite a mark in the food world.
The business doesn't come without worry, however,as the pay model comes with the issue of not being able to account for fluctuation in ingredient prices. If the prices of avocados or chicken, or really anything else go up, he doesn't have the luxury of raising dish prices, as traditional restaurants would. There's also a problem that all restaurants have, and that is finding and hiring staff. As of now, 80% of their staff is brought on a volunteer basis.
"That brings its own challenge to the table," Williams said. "We train about 30% of our staff, every day."
While there is a real fear of how to stay afloat, Williams has looked to other restaurants who have had success with similar models.
Colorado, for instance, has had a handful of pay-what-you-can restaurants for quite a few years now, most notably Denver’s “Same Cafe," which has been operating under a donation-based system since 2006. The cafe's success has shown that it can work, and has actually been the blueprint for the few restaurants brave enough to try it.
"As far as long term feasibility, there are a handful of restaurants across the country that run similar models," Williams said. "Across those restaurants, they have a higher success rate than a traditional restaurant model. Restaurants as a whole don’t have a great success percentage, but these type of restaurants trend a little bit better than traditional restaurants.”
Williams believes that when you know your money goes toward a good cause, you want to pay, and want to help. The Fort Worth Community has shown this to be true thus far, backing Williams and Taste Community.
At least in this Texas community, that type of honor system is working out, and all in the name of helping out your fellow man.