Northampton Restaurant Attempts Optional Prices, With Mixed Results

May 26, 2017

If you could pay a little extra for your meal to help feed a hungry person, would you? That’s what one restaurant in western Massachusetts is hoping diners will consider when they come in to eat.

But making changes to the restaurant business model is complicated. 

'That's not tips. That's not for us'

The jar next to the cash register inside the Haymarket Cafe in Northampton looks, at first glance, like a tip jar. But a small sign explains this isn’t money for the employees; it’s money for other customers.

“And I’ll explain like, 'That’s not tips. That’s not for us. It’s actually for this thing we’re doing called the common account,'" owner Peter Simpson said he explains to customers.

And it’s true. Simpson's employees don’t work for tips. In fact, the Haymarket did away with tipping about a year and half ago. Simpson increased his menu prices a little bit and started paying all of his employees $15 an hour -- no tips.

Pay-what-you-can

Now this year, Simpson had another idea for his restaurant. In February, he added one item to the menu -- a rice bowl -- that was offered on a sliding scale, or pay-what-you-can basis.

Any hungry person could order it, no questions asked.

But then Simpson and his staff thought, why not apply the same theory to the rest of the menu?

“It’s almost like pay-forward, where someone will come in and they’ll buy a coffee and they’ll buy two coffees and that’s for the next person who comes in who might want it or need it,” he said.

The Haymarket menu still has prices listed, but now if diners want to contribute to meals for those in need, they can pay into a fund. Or if they need help paying their bill, they can use the common account to make up the difference.

Peter Simpson is owner of the Haymarket Cafe in Northampton, Massachusetts. His restaurant has been offering meals to those in need on a pay-what-you-can basis.
Credit Katherine Davis-Young / NEPR

Will the common account dry up?

It’s not the first restaurant to try something like this. Pay-what-you-will restaurants have popped up in cities like Philadelphia and Denver in recent years. But in the the notoriously risky restaurant business, can a charitable program like this really be sustainable?

Roman Golden, the general manager of the Haymarket, has been watching the common account closely the past few months.

“At first, it seemed like it was going to be fine," Golden said. "But as of the last month or so, I’d say, it’s really picking up.”

And by that, Golden means the sliding scale meals are really picking up. He estimates about 40 or 50 people are using the common account to pay for their meals every day.

So now, there’s more money coming out of the fund than going into it, and that worries him.

But Simpson -- the owner -- said he’s glad the common account seems to be helping some people.

“So I want to make it possible," he said. "I’m just trying to figure out how...because you know I do run a business and I think there’s a way, I’m just trying to figure it out."

The Haymarket Cafe’s common account program may need to change slightly moving forward, but Simpson said he’s “adamant” it will continue.