How Pay-What-You-Want Menus Can Help Those in Need

March 2018

Some operators choose to not feature the prices of dishes on their menus—but what about choosing to not have set prices at all? The pay-what-you-want or pay-what-you-can model gives diners the option to name their price for menu items, which might help those who cannot afford to pay, as well as those looking for a way to give back while enjoying a meal. There are currently more than 60 of these types of restaurants established in the U.S.

Many pay-what-you-want operations are charitable, designed to offer healthy meals to all. They don’t establish which diners pay more than enough and which do not pay at all—this helps create a sense of community while eliminating judgement. EAT Café in Philadelphia is a nonprofit that offers a welcoming atmosphere for diners from all walks of life. Its name, EAT, stands for “everyone at the table.” The restaurant’s receipts print with a suggested price, allowing diners to decide the appropriate amount to pay.

Fast-casual chain Panera Bread backs the Panera Cares community café, with a location in Boston. The café was founded to help those in need, and it encourages diners to pay it forward if they can. If diners aren’t able to pay for their meal, they have the option of volunteering in the café as a way of payment. The café earns 70–75% of its total retail value of food.

Research shows that in order for pay-what-you-want concepts to be feasible, 80% of diners must pay the full price (or suggested price) of the menu items they order. But for most pay-what-you-can restaurant operators, the goal isn’t to make money—it’s to make a difference.

Whether your operation has a pay-what-you-want setup or more traditional menu pricing, there are lots of ways to make a difference. You could start by holding a food drive or donating extra meals and ingredients to a local food bank. Or simply focus on being more conscious of food waste while working toward a more sustainable, environmentally friendly operation. Learn more here about the small steps you can take to make a positive impact.


Banov, Jessica. Raleigh’s first pay-what-you-can restaurant has found a home, The News & Observer, August 2017.

Judkis, Maura. ‘There’s a dignity to this place’: Inside the world of pay-what-you-can restaurants, The Washington Post, January 2017.

Romm, Cari. It’s Astonishing That Pay-What-You-Want Policies Ever Work, The Cut, November 2016.

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