When Maggie Kane graduated from North Carolina State University in 2013 with a degree in international business, she had a plan—teaching English abroad or taking a year off to travel.

Instead, she ended up setting her sights on opening Table Raleigh, a pay-what-you-can restaurant open for breakfast and dinner that she hopes to open by Nov. 28, or Giving Tuesday, in downtown Raleigh’s warehouse district.

“It’s funny how things change,” she says, explaining that the idea was sparked by eating in a soup kitchen.

After college, Kane worked at Love Wins, a nonprofit aimed at helping people experiencing homelessness. She saw firsthand the need for a place that could address food insecurity in a dignified way while providing an opportunity for connection and creating community.  

“I was eating in soup kitchens and I was eating in food banks with some of the people I was seeing at Love Wins,” Kane says, “and I was realizing just how bad of a meal it was, how it was undignified, how the people were rushed in and rushed out.”

‘The community is what we really want to create.’ – Sean Degnan

So she got to work researching other models for addressing food insecurity and came across the pay-what-you-can concept through One World Everybody Eats, a nonprofit created as a response to the food insecurity that affects 800 million people globally, and 17 million households in America.

This issue hits especially close in North Carolina. Since 2010, the state has regularly ranked among the top 10 food insecure states, with nearly one in six citizens experiencing food shortages. According to the North Carolina Association of Feeding America Food Banks, the state is also home to several of the nation’s most food insecure cities. In Wake County alone, 131,800 people are food insecure and 884 individuals are homeless.

Table Raleigh’s model is based on an 80/20 system, where 80 percent of the guests’ payments make up for the 20 percent of those who choose to pay less or volunteer.

Guests are given a suggested price, as well as the option to pay whatever they’d like. As a counter-service restaurant, there isn’t any tipping, so the idea is that instead of leaving a couple of dollars as a tip, guests will leave that money as a means of paying it forward.

Table Raleigh has hosted a number of pop-up brunches to date and so far all costs have been covered—by a lot, according to Kane.

Four female friends at lunch in busy restaurant, full length

“Our generation, we’re foodies. I’m a foodie. I love to eat in cool places, and if I can help other people feel dignified to walk into a restaurant setting and have a good meal, I’m going to do it,” she says.

To date, One World Everybody Eats has fostered 60 pay-what-you-can community cafes in America, with 50 others in the planning stages in six countries. These cafes serve 4,000 meals a day—more than 1.4 million meals a year—in both nonprofit and for-profit restaurant settings, and at least 30 percent of these meals are served to people of lesser means.

The work has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the industry. This past May, the James Beard foundation awarded One World Everybody Eats founder Denise Cerreta the 2017 Humanitarian of the Year Award.

Cerreta opened the first pay-what-you-can community cafe, One World Café, in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2003. Three years later, she traveled to Denver with volunteers to help Brad and Libby Birky open So All May Eat Café following the same model. Since then, pay-what-you-can restaurants have sprung up across the nation, from Santa Monica to Miami to New York City. Even Panera Bread and Jon Bon Jovi have jumped on board.

waitress tying on her apron

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North Carolina has already seen three successful pay-what-you-can concepts, Vimala’s Curryblossom Cafe, Rosetta’s Kitchen and Feed All Regardless of Means Cafe, but Table Raleigh will be the first in Wake County.

“It definitely works,” Kane says. “They can become sustainable.”

For Sean Degnan, chairman of Table Raleigh’s board of directors and co-owner/co-founder of Raleigh restaurants bu•ku and so•ca, making the restaurant setting comfortable for guests is vital. Degnan has been in the service industry for 27 years, and over that time has had to ask people to leave restaurants because they couldn’t afford to dine. He says that makes this mission personal.

“It’s tough to not welcome people,” he says. “The fact that I’ve had to turn people away, that wears on you, so I need this cafe as much as anyone. I need a place where I can send people, where I can sit down with them. I think for a lot of the board and a lot of the people who volunteer, the community is what we really want to create.”

friends eating at a restaurant grand opening

Degnan came on board in a rather fortuitous way: His own mentor, Renee Boughman, runs Feed All Regardless of Means, or F.A.R.M. Cafe. He had heard of what she was doing but wasn’t entirely familiar with the concept. Then, he attended an information session for Table Raleigh.

“There were like 100 people there before 7 o’clock on a Tuesday, and I thought, ‘Wow, this is really something,’” Degnan recalls.

He soon joined the board and began helping with pop-up events.

“The coolest part about the pop-ups, once we got good at them, was that the model worked,” he says. “More than 80 percent of the people who showed up paid the bill, or more than the bill.”

He admits that there are times when people take advantage of the concept. At their last pop-up a couple left $2 on a $30 bill, even though Degnan says it seemed clear they could have paid in full. On the flip side, however, as Degnan was walking to the next table, one of the members of the Rex Hospital Foundation pulled him aside and pledged $5,000 on the spot.  

“There it is—there’s the proof right there. It was inspiring,” he says. “Every single time someone has taken advantage of the concept, way more people showed up and covered for them and people who truly needed the assistance.”

Table Raleigh has also launched a sustainer program welcoming donations, and they are currently looking for a corporate sponsor, as well.

Table Raleigh’s planned Giving Tuesday open date is purposeful. The day was created in response to the consumerism and commercialization of the holiday season, and it tends to be a big day for nonprofits.

Kane says the operation will be very relationship-minded, with a focus on getting to know their regulars

“We really want this to be Raleigh’s table,” Kane says. “We want this to be Raleigh’s community cafe where everyone can come to the table.”

Written by   |  
Carolina born and bred, Laura grew up on Sunday suppers of fried chicken and collard greens plucked straight from her grandma’s backyard. After more than fifteen years of serving guests and slinging drinks, this writer, editor, and educator is obsessed with foodways, intersectionality, and finding the best fried chicken sandwich in America. Currently based in Raleigh, you’ll find her in either the kitchen or the garden—along with her dog and a glass (or two) of whiskey.