An image of a grain bowl from above
Sunset grains at west~bourne. Photo by Nicole Franzen, courtesy of west~bourne

The Endless Promise of the Mission-Driven Restaurant

Can a restaurant feed and fix—and stay afloat while doing it?
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
May 26, 2020, 12:00pm

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Means of Production issue. Conceived of pre-COVID-19 and constructed during it, it explores the organization and ownership of our world.

The first time Brad Reubendale visited the SAME Café in Denver was around 2012, when he really needed its help. (1) Reubendale was experiencing homelessness and food insecurity after he, a former pastor and religious nonprofit worker, was excommunicated from his church for coming out as gay. He figured that SAME—shorthand for So All May Eat, a “pay-what-you-can” restaurant where meals are exchanged for donations of money, produce, or volunteering—was a place where he could access healthy food.

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(1) While I was reporting this story, the global COVID-19 outbreak forced the government to mandate the closure of restaurants and food businesses around the U.S. We’ve annotated the ways the pandemic has affected the restaurants mentioned in this piece.

Reubendale was right. He would continue to visit SAME, drawn to its healthy, good-tasting food, while he got his life back together. In 2014, he reentered the nonprofit sector through work with homeless and neglected youth.

Three years ago, SAME founders Brad and Libby Birky decided to take a step back from the day-to-day of the almost 14-year-old restaurant. “I said, ‘I want that job. I want to be able to expand SAME Café and help keep it operational,’” Reubendale told VICE. Now, he said, it’s more than that: , and as he’s gone from diner to director, Reubendale is tasked not just with raising enough funds to keep the cafe churning, but also with thinking of ways to expand—to spread the idea of SAME beyond Denver. (2)

While most restaurants put the focus on food and service with a goal of creating a thriving business, the mission-driven restaurant looks beyond innovation in the kitchen or the experience of dining. While food is still the center of the equation, mission-driven restaurants attempt to tackle larger issues like food insecurity, access to healthy food, sustainability, and more; it’s not just about turning a monetary profit. To run a restaurant guided by a philanthropic goal is a recurring dream across the industry, one that isn’t shared by all chefs or all restaurateurs but by enough that new iterations continue to pop up. Even as some mission-driven models prove unsuccessful, like the now-defunct pay-what-you-can chain Panera Cares, the possibility remains for the concept to be reworked. “Mission-driven” is a dream with endless promise.

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That promise doesn’t come with a guarantee, but a sense of what the restaurant industry could look like: Wouldn’t a restaurant that can both feed and fix—and stay afloat while doing it—be a better way to operate? In an industry where traditional business models already hover on razor-thin margins, it’s a luxury that many restaurants can’t afford. But as bold as it may be to suggest that restaurants can do more and extend themselves further, people won’t stop trying.

Everytable

The exterior of Everytable in Los Angeles, coutesy of Everytable

At SAME, the menu feels like the one at your standard hometown cafe, and that’s the point. SAME is structured as a nonprofit, but it’s meant to feel like a restaurant, where dishes like quinoa salad, chicken chili, and barbecue chicken pizza share space on a handwritten menu board that changes by the day and where the food doesn’t feel like a handout—it’s not a soup kitchen, with a set selection of food provided for free—or an afterthought.

The difference comes in how you settle up, and while not every mission-driven restaurant follows a pay-what-you-can approach, that model has worked for SAME. Similar cafes exist through the nationwide group One World Everybody Eats, whose pay-what-you-can model inspired SAME’s.

The approach has been less successful for one larger company who attempted it. In 2010, beginning with its home state of Missouri, Panera Bread launched Panera Cares, its philanthropic arm, with a pay-what-you-can premise that expanded to Michigan, Oregon, Illinois, and Massachusetts.

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But by 2013, flaws in the Panera Cares model made themselves known. Locations lost money and cracked down on how often visitors could dine, after complaints arose about students eating there daily and people who were experiencing homelessness eating there multiple times per day. According to a study in the Journal of Business Ethics of Panera Cares’ Yelp reviews, people with resources found it “unpleasant” to face the realities of food insecurity, while people with fewer resources were demoralized by having to publicly pay what they could, and they experienced issues like profiling and limited bathroom access.

As of February 2019, every Panera Cares location had closed, and a representative for JAB Holding Company, which acquired Panera Bread in 2017, told Bloomberg at the time, “Despite our commitment to this mission, it’s become clear that continued operation of the Boston Panera Cares is no longer viable.”

Even high-profile chefs have given the mission-driven restaurant model a shot. Despite name recognition and restaurant expertise, the results proved similar.

In 2014, the esteemed Philadelphia restaurant owners Steve Cook and Michael Solomonov began crowdfunding for Rooster Soup Co. As the owners of the chicken-focused restaurant Federal Donuts, the pair had 1,000 pounds of extra chicken parts per week that were otherwise going to waste, and this, they hoped, could be turned into soup. Instead of a pay-what-you-can model, Rooster Soup Co. would generate a profit, all of which would go to the Broad Street Ministry, which provides social services and community engagement across the city.

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With Rooster Soup Co. forecasting $50,000 in annual net profits in its first year, more than 1,500 backers contributed a total of nearly $180,000 toward the endeavor, which opened in 2017. But when soup proved to be an unsustainable year-round focus, Rooster Soup Co. rebranded as The Rooster, a Jewish deli, the following year. In the summer of 2019, Cook and Solomonov announced that The Rooster was coming to an end.

Pulling in little foot traffic, the restaurant didn’t generate much profit; it donated just$16,000 in its first year. “For a restaurant whose fundamental premise is to generate funds for our non-profit partner, this has become an untenable and counterproductive situation,” Cook and Solomonov wrote in a statement at the time. (In a separate blow to Philadelphians experiencing food insecurity, the city’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant, the Drexel University–affiliated EAT Café, closed the same year because of rising operating costs and loss of funding.)

In 2016, the Los Angeles–based chef Roy Choi, who popularized Korean tacos through Kogi BBQ, and the Bay Area chef Daniel Patterson, of the Michelin-starred Coi, started Locol. With better-for-you burgers and bowls, locations in underserved areas of Watts and Oakland, and community-focused hiring practices, Locol was a new vision for cheap fast food.

If change happens one restaurant at a time, how much change can we really expect?

But the idea of Locol was more successful than the reality, according to a review by the New York Times’ Pete Wells. “The neighborhoods Locol is targeting have serious nutritional problems, from hunger to obesity,” he wrote, “but the solution isn’t to charge people for stuff that tastes like hospital food.”

While Wells’ heavily criticized zero-star review didn’t sink the Locol operation, the project wasn’t successful. Finances were a problem, and the neighborhood audience was indeed unexcited about Locol’s food. By August 2018, Locol had closed all four locations.

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Between 2016 and 2019, Mission Street Food founders Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz ran San Francisco’s The Perennial, a restaurant whose goal was to be the city’s most sustainable through agricultural and business practices intended to minimize environmental damage.

But by early 2019, Myint and Leibowitz realized that their mission could be accomplished without so much stressful overhead. “At some point we started to feel like we could do more work on [improving the food system] if we could devote all our time and energy to it and not be losing money also,” Myint told Eater at the time. They’d become skeptical that a single restaurant could yield systemic change.

The pair have since shifted their efforts to the nonprofit sector through the Perennial Farming Initiative (PFI), which supports progressive agriculture and includes a collective of restaurants who commit 1 percent of revenue to farmers with soil-enriching projects. Instead of keeping one restaurant afloat, PFI can rely on the shared resources of many.

It’s clear that there isn’t one way to run a restaurant with a mission, but there also isn’t broader consensus (or broad governmental support) on how to solve problems like food deserts or environmental damage or homelessness, and as a result, perhaps one reason why so many mission-driven restaurants struggle is that there’s no guidebook on how to run them. Brad Reubendale eventually hopes to provide resources for running a restaurant structured like SAME, but individuals will always attempt their own approaches. While these restaurants can do their best to find solutions for societal problems, what they’re attempting to confront is ultimately rooted in institutions. If change happens one restaurant at a time, how much change can we really expect?

A volunteer shelling beans

A volunteer cleans green beans outside SAME Cafe, 2019. Photo by Letisha Steele, courtesy of Same Cafe

Three years into his work at SAME Café, Reubendale doesn’t feel like it’s all hanging on a thread. “For me, it feels completely secure and comfortable,” he said in late February. “The only tenuousness is because I’m ambitious, and I’m trying to move forward.” Reubendale attributes that security to his fundraising experience and SAME’s 501(c)(3) structure, which classifies it as a tax-exempt charitable organization. That’s where he thinks some mission-driven restaurants go wrong: by trying to operate as for-profit businesses with a philanthropic goal.

“They’re trying to make a for-profit business. [SAME’s pay-what-you-can structure] is a great nonprofit model and a really terrible for-profit model. You have to have the nonprofit thing,” Reubendale said. SAME relies completely on funding from donors, which allows it to focus on its mission instead of pleasing investors. “[Investors] make decisions, generally speaking, around middle-class and upper-class folks, and they’re not as picky about what it feels like to be on the need end of the spectrum.”

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When it comes to pay-what-you-can models, as with Panera Cares, those decisions may take the form of a clearly stated suggested donation. “You want to know how much you should give, and you can give a little extra,” Reubendale said, referring to middle- or upper-class diners. “The problem is, if you can’t achieve that, then you feel less-than in the space and you’ve now created two classes of people.”

Perhaps a factor of his own experience dining at SAME all those years ago is that Reubendale puts a strong focus on recognizing everyone’s dignity: Guests who don’t have money to throw into the bucket have time and value to contribute. “We want to have a place where everyone feels like they actually legitimately belong. Some people will say, ‘You give dignity to people.’ No, we recognize the dignity that people already have,” he said.

The list of social issues that a restaurant could tackle never ends, and for every mission-driven restaurant that has closed, there’s one that’s still bright-eyed and ready to get started. Not all share Reubendale’s point of view or business model, but they’re trying to make it work.

Sam Polk, the CEO and co-founder of Everytable, used to be a senior trader at “one of the largest hedge funds in the world,” one where they actually made money during the stock market crash of 2008, he said. But Polk “was sort of empty. I was reading a lot of civil rights stuff, and I was coming to understand that the career path I was on didn’t have a lot of meaning behind it.” He saw the dark side of the finance industry—where people complained about the size of their bonuses despite massive layoffs and foreclosures nationwide. As he started to think more about inequality, he saw food as “one of the most pure expressions of that.”

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After leaving his job in finance, Polk’s first approach to solving the food inequality puzzle was to start a nonprofit called Feast in 2013. Its aim was to work with families who wanted to get healthy but felt challenged by the options in their neighborhoods in South Los Angeles. The nonprofit structure and the inevitability of being beholden to donors wore on Polk, though. “I got frustrated with the fundraising process of the nonprofit model, and I started to see it as the other side of the inequality coin,” he said. The show of putting on and organizing events, for example, seemed to suit donors, and not the people he was hoping to help.

While Polk remains on the board of Feast, he and co-founder David Foster launched Everytable in 2015 with the goal of directly bringing healthy, high-quality food with affordable prices to marginalized communities. It’s easy to call Everytable a restaurant, because it has them: nine brick-and-mortar locations so far, all in the LA area from Brentwood to downtown and Compton. But Polk doesn’t necessarily see it that way, because Everytable’s approach is greater than just in-store dining.

Everytable relies on a single, central kitchen that supports three offshoots: There’s the restaurant, which provides low-cost, nutritious food that Polk likened to Sweetgreen in quality. Then, there’s the subscription service, which delivers premade meals on a weekly basis. Finally, there’s the smart fridge, which Everytable stocks with meals for businesses and offices. (3)

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“The structure of most restaurants is pretty inefficient, where you have a single location that is making food from scratch and then selling it to customers right away, and there’s no economies of scale, there’s no volume efficiencies,” Polk explained. “But because we can have a single kitchen supporting all of our locations, we can have basically the same kind of efficiencies that massive manufacturing plants have. That’s how we can get super low prices.”

From there, Everytable’s variable pricing model comes into play, adjusting prices depending on what neighborhood the restaurant is in. A meal that costs $4.50 to produce might sell for $5 in an underserved neighborhood but $8 in a more affluent one. The science of it, Polk said, is in figuring out average household income, what margins Everytable needs to make, and what nearby fast food is charging. The art of it is in figuring out what exactly each neighborhood will find attractive.

“There’s a lot of talk about food deserts and food justice,” Polk said, “and the sad truth is that we don’t have many competitors selling healthy food in underserved neighborhoods.” He thinks Everytable’s mission is an interesting value proposition to people across the food spectrum: Corporations that could invest in it are always interested in figuring out how to sell healthy food for lower prices, while food and social justice advocates are also rallying around Everytable’s goals.

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What Everytable wants to change goes beyond food accessibility. A fair-chance employer, Everytable hires from marginalized groups including former foster children and the formerly incarcerated, and in January 2020, Everytable won a $2.5 million investment to recruit franchisees of color. As the company started to consider franchising, Polk realized that the practice gives an advantage to people with capital; capital, clearly, isn’t equally distributed. With this investment, he hopes not just to expand access to healthy food but to extend the opportunity of owning a business to people who might not otherwise be able to start one.

“At the end of the day, for us, mission is everything—like the only reason that this company exists and that people come to work every day is because we have this core belief that healthy food is a human right and should be affordable and accessible to everyone,” Polk said. “If you took that away, then Everytable would just fizzle and disappear.”

Similarly, Camilla Marcus of west~bourne, an all-day cafe in New York City’s SoHo, has been guided from the beginning by the idea of neighborhood-focused hospitality. (4) She opened the cafe in January 2018 after attending culinary school, law school, and business school and working as the director of business development of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Hospitality Group. Her background is varied, and her approach to community is, too, mostly with an eye toward wellness and collectivism.

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Central to the idea of westbourne is a partnership with a local nonprofit. “They were the first people I ever mentioned the word westbourne to. The original concept was always what it is today: One percent goes to a local grantee called The Door,” Marcus said. The Door is a youth development program that provides counseling, food services, and job training across the city, and it’s supported by the poverty-fighting Robin Hood Foundation. “To start our own charitable arm at the start seemed too big a mountain to climb.”

As of early March, westbourne was about to pass the $50,000 donation mark; aside from donating 1 percent of all sales, westbourne also hires around 30 percent of employees through The Door. But the cafe diverges from the typical restaurant structure in other ways, beginning with the meditation that kicks off service each day.

Instead of employing front-of-house and back-of-house staff, Marcus reduces division by cross-training employees in all positions, and since late 2019, west~bourne has partnered with the childcare center Vivvi to provide employees with subsidized child-care from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. since, as Marcus pointed out, restaurant shifts are rarely compatible with day-care hours. It’s also currently on track to be Manhattan’s first certified zero-waste restaurant. “For us, it’s an evolution as much as it is a revolution,” (5) Marcus said.

The problems that mission-driven restaurants attempt to solve are rarely rooted in the restaurant industry alone: Restaurants aren’t to blame for food insecurity, environmentally harmful farming practices, the scarcity of affordable housing, or the lack of adequate childcare support. Amid institutional and government failings, it’s clear that people are trying to find any other means, and American individualism has always promoted personal responsibility over the expectation that the government will provide. But in an industry where so many businesses already hang by a thread, how much more of a burden can restaurants shoulder?

No matter how mission-driven restaurant owners approach the problems they’re trying to solve, they’re constrained by a system that relies on the flow of money, whether it’s to please investors in a for-profit restaurant model or to sway donors to continue giving funds. If keeping a restaurant open is hard, then keeping a restaurant that’s also trying to be something bigger than that is even harder. (6)

(2) As of late March, SAME Café was providing food for pickup only and increasing its services in the face of coronavirus-related layoffs. With the economy in a downturn, Reubendale shared concern about the flow of donations needed to keep SAME running.

(3) In response to COVID-19 and bans on dine-in restaurant service by the city of Los Angeles, Everytable shifted to a pickup only model at its restaurants and started a helpline to provide food for senior citizens, school districts, and anyone else in need.

(4) In mid-March, west~bourne announced that it would be closing “in the name of public health interest.”

(5) In response to mass layoffs across the restaurant industry, Marcus partnered with the Independent Restaurant Coalition to ask legislators to protect America's restaurants.

(6) This problem, however, is now happening on a scale too large for the solution to be on diners. When it comes to the restaurant industry, which is already picking up the slack of so many social failings, at what point do the institutions above stop adding more burden?

Follow Bettina Makalintal on Twitter.