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North Carolina restaurant allows customers to pay what they can with ‘suggested’ menu prices

RALEIGH, N.C. – It seems like some sort of social science experiment – and, after all, it is in the middle of a college town.

But Maggie Tate’s restaurant, at 300 W. Hargett St. in downtown Raleigh, is very much a business. It’s just that the prices on the menu are all, “suggested.” You pay what you can.

“We say we need 80 percent of people paying the suggested price or more, 20 percent of people paying less or volunteering the meal, and we do,” says Maggie.

That’s part of why she chose her spot, about a 5-minute walk southwest of the state capitol, to garner just the right mix of folks.

And there’s a reason they named the restaurant, “A Place at the Table.” Because if you’re hungry and have no money, you won’t be turned away. So how does that work as a business?

“Do people just eat and leave? That doesn't happen - that's never happened,” says café manager, Joshua Hancock. “Honestly, for the cafe, it sells itself. I've had people come in here really, really skeptical and be told about how you can pay it forward and they've just said, 'I'll just pay the minimum.' And then they've sat right here at the bar for about an hour and then they pull me aside at the end and say, 'Let me ask you, again, how this works.'”

The business model very much relies on not just those who will pay more than the suggested price but who volunteer on a regular basis.

“We have about 400 different people that volunteer with us. Some, twice a week, some once every two months. So, figuring out what people are good at, how they can be best utilized is a challenge,” says Hancock.

“They fill in the labor gap,” notes Maggie. “We don't have servers, we don't have wait staff.”

What they do have is an unusual restaurant that works.

“I'm telling you, this has been such a beautiful experience for all of us,” says Maggie with a smile.

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