Serving mankind

Can you believe that a restaurant which allows its guests to pay what they feel is the right price of the food served to them or appoints volunteer for making food in the kitchen or serving food to other visitors can survive in the market?  “No” will be most of the people’s answer. Wrong. There are many restaurants in India and abroad which are operating on ‘pay-as-you-can’ restaurant model. Here, a customer instead of receiving a bill is handed over an envelope, and instead of footing the bill, the visitor drops cash into a donation box; or, if the visitor or guest (as they call their customers) is unable to pay the cash, then he or see can help them out in cleaning, maintaining, cooking, cutting vegetables or in serving food to other guests.

The concept

One such concept in India is run by the organisation founded by Swami Shanthanand Saraswathi, disciple of HH Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh.  There he mooted the idea of starting a restaurant – Annalakshmi, but with a different concept, “to be run by volunteers”, that serves authentic Indian vegetarian cuisine. The purpose was to make a great opportunity for his devotees to serve, love and purify. “‘Eat as you like and pay what your  heart feels’ is the brain child of our Master. This is successfully implemented in all our overseas operations in Australia, Malaysia and Singapore. In India, ie, Chennai, we have a fine dining restaurant to bring out our tradition and culture in a royal ambience,” says N Aravind, Director, Annalakshmi Restaurant Pvt Ltd.  

Another restaurant and café, Seva Café, operating in Ahmedabad in India and Long Beach in California, is running on the same concept. Speaking about the origin of Seva Café, John Silliphant, one of the Seva Cafe volunteers, says, “The human history is filled with countless examples of selfless giving and service, where food is provided as an offering based on love. For us the original inspiration came from a pay-as-you-wish restaurant called Annalakshmi in Singapore.”


Work as A volunteer

Though some other pay-as-you-can restaurants have a suggested price which covers up the average cost of their meal at restaurant, Seva Café doesn’t have any suggested price. The guests receive the bill without any charge.  They are handed over an envelope and can pay whatever they are intended to pay – from their heart.  Silliphant of Seva Cafe says, “Our emphasis is not on money, but on heart-based giving.  If someone is not intended to give anything, then they will walk out without paying.  If someone wants to give, then they may give a little or they may give a lot.”  Or the other option for paying the cost of meal is to volunteer. Basically these restaurants have systems in place and people in charge of various tasks to perform their individual roles. “We have a highly volunteer-based operation,” says Silliphant, “the reason for this, primarily, is that we are founded for seva. We treat our guests or customers as God, and when one is serving to God, he or she naturally does his or her best work.”

As most of the volunteers don’t have served before, they are coached ahead of time to work from this space and are also coached on their specific tasks.  One generally starts washing dishes and with more experience eventually will serve tables.  “Though it’s true that not everyone would give what would be required to sustain the operating costs of the restaurant, but some people give much more, and altogether, we have been able to continue this experiment in seva now for over five years,” says a Seva Cafe Coordinator. He says, “We call this cycle the ‘Circle of Giving’.” 

Treat whole world as one family

“In Eat as you like model, a guest pays according to his or her  capacity, which sometimes cover for others who pay lesser than their capacity. The whole idea is to feel for the abundance of love Mother Nature is showering on us. It is not a commercial restaurant model to make profit from the operations. We keep the overheads very low. All the volunteers come and help in cooking and serving. With many kind hearted souls, we keep the project going. The restaurant capacity is 100 pax (approx),” informs Arvind.

Running any kind of restaurant is not easy and needs a lot of effort, especially when one strives to maintain very high standards of product and services. Since Seva Cafe started its operation, there has always been a question of whether or not the restaurant would generate enough money to continue operating.  The restaurant have gone through long stretches when not enough money was coming in and it made everyone question whether this experiment was meant to last.  “Because it has not always been easy financially, it has really put our commitment and motives to test,” says Silliphant.

Running “eat as you like and pay what your heart feels” restaurant model is either about love or is about survival, because when it is not breaking even, one is pitted against these core questions.  Through these trials, Seva Café maintained its commitment to serve with love and without fear, and it is this that has always attracted people to Seva Café and also allowed to keep going forward.

People universally love this concept and format in India and around the world.  Society typically operates through conditional relationships, ie, I will serve you food if you give me money.  Only in the family environment does that conditional giving break down. “For us the whole world is our family. The enthusiasm we get is one of the great perks for the work we do.  Each and every day, we experience unexpected acts of kindness and generosity.  We believe these ripples continue and tend towards making the world a little friendlier for all.  We are happy to be a link in this chain,” shares Silliphant. 

Expanding the chain

“In terms of expansion, we operate in a decentralised way. Our focus is not on expansion, but on serving with love, as best as we can,” shares Silliphant. Like any other restaurant model, if someone is inspired to open another Seva Café outlet, the organisation is willing to provide all the support and guidance that would be required, but the motivation to start it and sustain it must come from that group. Running such kind of restaurants is matter of love to serve human beings and is not meant for getting any kind of profit out of it.

There have been other Seva Cafes that have opened in Pune and Los Angeles.  There have been many restaurants modeled after Seva Cafe that have used different names in Pondicherry, Chandigarh, and in the United States.  There have also been many people who have wanted to open Seva Cafés in places such as Rajasthan, Chandigarh, and as far away as Africa and New York City, who weren’t able to follow through. The inspiration springs from the act of charity not for the sake of doing business. Expansion is not a part of Annalakshmi’s business strategy, but an intention to serve more people. “In India, we have started in Coimbatore and the response is good. We share our concept and educate the people and they appreciate very well. We would like to maintain the ambience and guests should feel light in heart and joy of eating in the restaurant. We pray to Mother Nature to have more of this restaurant in India,” comments Arvind.

The pay-as-you-can models of restaurants are  replicated very fast in other parts of India and across the world. As the awareness and willingness to serve human being will grow, this model will also take a life of its own.                            

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