A motivated quintet of local community advocates and business owners plans to offer Willamette Valley residents a new dining experience. The group intends to open a for-profit restaurant, dubbed “Food for Thought Cafe and Infoshop,” in downtown Salem. There, diners will be able to sample locally-sourced, multi-cultural cuisine–but at a fraction of the price other restaurants might charge.

What will guarantee the restaurant’s affordable offerings? A pay-what-you-want business model which allows customers to pay according to their financial means.

Michele Darr, a board member of Food for Thought Cafe, isn’t worried about maintaining a steady revenue stream. “We believe we have a bullet-proof business and sustainment plan,” she told Helen Caswell of Salem Weekly. Darr’s fellow board member, Amanda Hinman, points to Panera Bread Company’s successful pay-what-you-want experiment in Dearborn, Michigan: the project “helped Panera build a long-term strategy devoted to maintaining a loyal return customer base and is serving as a roadmap for others,” Hinman explained.

Jessica Parks directs a pay-what-you-want cafe in Kirskville, Missouri. Parks admits that obtaining financial support from donors constitutes a major challenge for the business: “People were very skeptical at first.” But, she continued, “once they come, taste our food and see it in action they keep coming back.” About 9 in 10 customers at Parks’ restaurant pay the suggested amount for their meals.

For Darr, the pay-what-you-want model is about giving the needy access to an experience which they otherwise would not be able to afford. “Giving low-income people the chance to eat a nutritious sit-down meal somewhere other than a soup kitchen helps [all people] remember that we aren’t strangers, or forgotten citizens . . . we are neighbors,” she said. Darr and her colleagues hope to offer classes and study spaces at their restaurant in addition to tasty cuisine. Ultimately, they aim to create a vibrant community atmosphere which will uplift the needy and transform the way society currently views food assistance.

Darr and her fellow board members welcome donations for Food for Thought Cafe at their GoFundMe page.

Nicholas Comerchero is a junior at Corban University, where he plans to complete his undergraduate degree in political science. Nicholas enjoys thinking, writing, and speaking about public policy and economics.