Local Kitchen Dishes Out Generosity and Good Will

Photo: Karma Kitchen's volunteer staff serves vegetarian food to patrons on Sunday afternoons, presenting guests with no bill, but rather encouraging them to pay the kindness forward.
Anna Hiatt/Staff
Karma Kitchen's volunteer staff serves vegetarian food to patrons on Sunday afternoons, presenting guests with no bill, but rather encouraging them to pay the kindness forward.

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Karma Kitchen

Karma Kitchen, held Sunday afternoons at the Taste of Himalayas restaurant, supports community support by offering food at a cost determined by the customer.

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Correction Appended

Any other day of the week, Taste of the Himalayas functions like a regular restaurant, but on Sunday afternoons, it is transformed into a community where paying for meals is up to the individual.

Karma Kitchen, an effort by non-profit organization CharityFocus, serves vegetarian lunches at the Indian restaurant on Shattuck Avenue every Sunday under the guiding principle that guests can pay for their meal in any way they see fit.

After enjoying a meal of dal, naan, raita, and curry, Karma Kitchen guests receive a bill of $0 and a message encouraging them to pay the generosity forward in any way they can.

"What this has really taught me is that everyone has a unique expression of generosity," said Pavi Mehta, who organizes the lunches with her husband. "For someone, that may mean bringing us lemons from their backyard or giving us an orchid plant every Sunday."

The seating hosts, waiters, and food servers all volunteer their time to spread a culture of generosity.

"In this culture, receiving is a really hard thing to do," Mehta said. "Karma Kitchen takes out this aspect of transaction."

When guests walk into the restaurant, the seating host presents them with a menu without any prices, welcoming back smiling returners and explaining the rules to questioning newcomers. With the rules set, patrons sit next to each other at long tables and order.

"One reaction is curiosity and another, skepticism," said Chris Johnnidis, a Berkeley resident who volunteers as a waiter. "It always dissolves into gratitude and happiness."

Using a cafe in India as its inspiration, Karma Kitchen first started operating in 2007 at Namaste on Telegraph Avenue. Last September, it moved to Taste of Himalayas due to ownership changes. Since then, it has served about 75 to 100 guests every Sunday.

"We just serve food for free. This idea moved me and I liked it, so I said, 'okay let's go for it,'" said Rajen Thapa, an owner of Taste of Himalayas. "I don't think I am losing anything."

Thapa works with the Mehtas using a trust system, allowing patrons to pay any amount to dine in his restaurant.

"We spend $400 to $500 for lunch. We don't pay anybody except the cook," Thapa said. "The cost is being covered. If not, the business is still doing good."

At the end of the day, any contributions left over from paying for the food and restaurant space are given to efforts that pursue a similar ideology.

Many of the guests and volunteers hear about Karma Kitchen by word of mouth, Mehta said. Restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco are also mimicking this idea.

Karma Kitchen attracts a diverse group, from people outside of the community to UC Berkeley students.

"Whenever there are negative things in my life, I can be surrounded by a positive energy here," said UC Berkeley junior Tiffany Long, a volunteer and frequent patron. "This is what keeps me coming back."


Correction: Monday, November 24, 2008
An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled the name of Namaste restaurant on Telegraph Avenue. The Daily Californian regrets the error.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

Contact Erika Oblea at [email protected]

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