Good Karma: Berkeley Restaurant Fine Tunes the Art of Paying It Forward

Photo: Snapshot from video.

This is the time of year when you might be doubting your discipline to keep your New Year’s resolutions. Everyone likes to start the year off in the positive frame of mind. For me, one of my biggest resolutions in 2013 was paying it forward. Seeing the smiles on other people around me from simple things that I had done to make their daily lives better was truly rewarding. So when 2014 started, I reminded myself of that resolution and decided to continue making it a part of my daily mindset.

It began in December last year when my family, like so many others, was affected by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. When I saw the photograph and headline flash across my newsfeed, I can’t begin to describe the fear. My niece and nephew attended Sandy Hook Elementary and my niece was in her third-grade classroom the day of the tragedy. My nephew, thankfully, had afternoon kindergarten that day. They both were safe, but our lives were forever changed.

In the weeks following, the question that so many people asked me was, “What can I do to help?” For me, the answer was easy: Pay it forward.

Then I stumbled across a company that makes doing that easier than ever.

When I learned about Karma Kitchen, a pop-up restaurant located in Berkeley, Calif., I wanted to share the story because the concept is so simple. The restaurant makes it easy for diners to pay it forward and give back to the community — specifically, the patrons who dine after you. Here’s how it works: each Sunday, volunteers cook and serve food to diners who then pay any amount of money they wish to contribute toward the next patron’s meal. The bill always reads $0.00, with a note that says, “In the spirit of generosity, someone who came before you made a gift of this meal. Now, it’s your chance to pay-it-forward for a future guest and continue the circle of giving.”

While it’s hard to believe that a restaurant with no prices on the menu can be successful, it’s obvious that many people believe strongly in this concept. Karma Kitchen started in 2007 and has served more than 30,000 meals with volunteers donating more than 20,000 hours. It has been so successful that there are now half-a-dozen chapters around the world, including Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

“It baffles people to know that Karma Kitchen has no tracking systems — we don’t monitor how much individual tables receive and how much they give,” Pavithra Mehta recently wrote in a YES! Magazine article. “Instead, we just focus on giving everyone a genuine experience of generosity.”

You can learn more about the culture of Karma Kitchen in the video below:

Karma Kitchen from Katie Teague on Vimeo.

Creating a new dynamic – a gift economy – is not only a way to connect with our community, but it’s a shift in focus on the way we think. Instead of consumers, we are contributors. It makes us realize how much we are thankful for and how the simple things, such as paying it forward, can be so rewarding.

This past week I purchased a cup of coffee for the person behind me in line at the local coffee shop. She was surprised and grateful — and she told me that I had just made her day. It made me smile as well, knowing that the simple action helped my day start on the right note, too.