Karma Kitchen (updated)

karma kitchen saad bhamla

Last Sunday, I had the opportunity* to volunteer at a unique restaurant in Berkeley – Karma Kitchen. The concept behind Karma Kitchen is put very aptly on their Web site..

Imagine a restaurant where there are no prices on the menu and where the check reads $0.00 with only this footnote: “Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. To keep the chain of gifts alive, we invite you to pay it forward for those dine after you.” 

That’s Karma Kitchen, a volunteer-driven experiment in generosity.

There are a bunch of things I learnt from this experience:

  1. Serving at a restaurant is taxing. We started at 9:30 am and finished around 4:00 pm after cleaning up. And boy, I was physically and mentally exhausted.
  2. Between 12 noon and 1 pm, on a Sunday afternoon, all hell breaks loose in a restaurant.
  3. Dishes pile up fast. Solution – a powerful commercial dishwasher which would clean stuff in a flash.
  4. When people are not told a specific amount to pay, people have different ways of coming up with an amount to pay. Majority left a rounded off amount, which made sense to me. Some people paid random amounts which was okay too I guess (depending on the change they had in their pockets).
  5. Heard two interesting stories – one of a hippie who tried to pay with “ganja” and was disappointed to learn that the establishment only accepted cash/cards.
  6. The second, a business man who kept on insisting that the volunteers tell him how much he should pay. The maître d’ tried his best to make him understand that the point was the customer decided what he/she felt was the value of a gift, but the man stubbornly refused to take no for an answer. Finally, he handed over a hundred-dollar bill, smiled and told the maître d’ to bring back his change. When I enquired how much change they returned, I learnt that the maître d’ after thinking for a minute, sent back the hundred dollars with along with a twenty-dollar bill.
  7. Initially, each one of us had roles allotted to us, mine being the drinks and desserts. But I wanted to experience how it was to actually go and take orders at the table and chat with the people, so I convinced M to let me handle some tables. After some initial awkwardness, I was happily chatting with the customers while I got their orders.
  8. One table had a bunch of desi guys majoring in CS at Berkeley and they asked where I was from. It was nice to see surprised reactions on their faces when I told them I was a grad student from Stanford.
  9. Another table had a bunch of cute girls from Berkeley. Strangely, I didn’t mind getting them all the ice cream that they wanted. I was more than happy to.

Overall, it was a day well spent. In a span of six hours, we served about a hundred patrons. Also, there was a documentarian who filmed pretty much the entire afternoon, going around interviewing the customers and volunteers about their experiences. If you have nothing to do on a weekend, I think it’s a nice way to spend your Sunday.

You can read more about our experience on their Web site.


*when I was telling this story to a bunch of people, most of them had one common question – How do you hear about these things?  I don’t know myself. I think it’s a result of being signed up on so many random mailing lists. Plus I’m sure they must have seen the email too. But who wants to wake at 7 am on a Sunday and go all the way to Berkeley and serve at a restaurant. Well, I do!

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.

~Muhammad Ali


Based on the some feedback that I got in the comments, I feel it is necessary to point out to the readers that there are some subtle differences between Karma Kitchen (pay-it-forward model), a free kitchen (e.g.. Langars) and Panera Bread (pay-what-you-want model)

  1. To understand the difference between KK/PB and a Free Kitchen, we need to understand the difference between free and a gift. For instance, something that is free, doesn’t necessarily mean its a gift. A gift, brings the giver and receiver closer, it is personal, involves a sacrifice on the part of the giver. And all this done with the right spirit.
  2. Keeping this mind, I feel that a Free kitchen is indeed, free. Be it a Langar. Or a Soup Kitchen. There is no immediate obligation on the receiver to reciprocate or pass on the favor. He accepts it as an act of generosity than a gift of generosity which needs to be returned. It is often a one-way exchange. And the idea at the very core is to provide hungry people with free food.
  3. On the other hand, KK/PB models are not designed to solve the worlds hunger problem. All they offer is a generosity-based experience for regular restaurant goers. In essence, use food to connect with others. And thus the apt tagline, “an experiment in generosity “.
  4. To illustrate the difference between a pay-it-forward and a pay-what-you-want model, Birju Pandya puts it very nicely,
    .. the key difference between pay-what-you-can and pay-forward is the sense of connection.. In the former, the connection is to the entity offering the deal and in the latter to the entity and every patron of the establishment. Consequently, you are also asked to do the same for others in whatever way you see fit.  While it may make little difference looking at the numbers, the difference in the mind and heart is quite pronounced from what I’ve seen.Imagine two toll booths: in lane one, you pull up and are told its pay what you want; in lane two, you pull up and are told that the car in front of you paid for your toll and you can do as you wish. In both cases, you pay $1 and feel good to have the choice. Yet the sense of connection is different in the pay-it-forward lane and that leads to a different societal shift.

Whew! Hope that helps.
Here are two interesting videos about Seva Cafe and Guru Nanaks Free Kitchen.


6 Responses to “Karma Kitchen (updated)”

  1. Mini May 22, 2011 at 7:17 am #

    Interesting. Reminds me of Langar that happens at almost all the Gurudwaras in India. Hai na?

    • admin May 22, 2011 at 8:15 am #

      Yep. That was my first thought too. I had been to the Gurudwara at Manikaran and I was like, boss they do this everyday without any gimmicks.
      Sigh. Its strange how one takes things for granted in India and thinks they are cool just because they have a fancy name here in the US.

  2. Rohan May 22, 2011 at 10:31 am #

    Hey..!! Awesome work.!!
    And I agree with your last comments about finding out and being excited to do stuff on a Sunday morn when u wud want to sleep and do nothing much.!!
    Its all about being interested and the opportunities will keep coming..!!!

    • admin May 22, 2011 at 2:15 pm #

      Yeah. But sometimes I’d rather sleep in than go out and do stuff.

  3. Smiles May 22, 2011 at 5:32 pm #

    Saad, great to read this. 🙂

    A point on langaar comment: there are lot of free kitchens, in India, US and around the world. First they serve the purpose of allowing the servers to grow in generosity, which is invaluable. Secondly, they offset some of the systemic problems in the society that creates these inequities in the first place; this is the reason why they often have institutional funding.

    Karma Kitchen is different. While it is about servers growing in generosity, it is not about free food at all. It is peer-to-peer generosity. That’s like the guy on your left giving you langaar, and you offering food to the fellow on the right. There’s no donor, or institution backing up the chain; its quite literally upto each individual. In that sense, Karma Kitchen is more about sensitizing people to inter-connected-ness with each other. Most people’s initial reaction is that free-loaders would never let the chain continue; but in truth, most of the world isn’t like that, and even amongst those, a place like Karma Kitchen starts to shift them subtly — but significantly.

    In India, there’s Seva Cafe’s in couple cities that runs on a similar concept (although its 7 days/week and has paid staff). This is a nice video about it: http://www.karmatube.org/videos.php?id=34

  4. admin May 23, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    I see what you mean, but personally, I find it extremely difficult to distinguish between a Langar and Karma Kitchen. Even at a Langar, there is a “local” peer-to-peer generosity. The volunteers do sacrifice their time and energy. They smile and genuinely love what they do. So, even though it appears free, it is indeed a gift. And I’ve eaten at both a Langar and Karma Kitchen. I could feel the personal inter-connected-ness at both places. The volunteers at both places made me feel welcome.
    I don’t mean to disagree with you, but all I’m saying is the difference is so subtle, I for one, don’t see it at all.

    When I say this, I assume the obvious difference that in one case, no payment is required but in the other, the mere act of giving a 0$ bill to the patron is encouraging payment.

    And the video was nice. Thanks for sharing.