Caffe Sospeso

Caffe sospeso, or “suspended coffee”, began in Naples, Italy, before the Second World War.  The idea is a simple one; customers would order one coffee but pay for two, leaving the receipt for a future customer who could not afford to pay.  Coffee is an important part of Italian culture, and caffe sospeso gave those in need the opportunity to share in that tradition, and, more importantly, to share the spaces where their communities engaged.  In the wake of the most recent economic catastrophe, many cafes and bars in southern Italy have expanded on the tradition to include food – a pizza or a sandwich – and even books and other goods (1).

A related trend is the recent proliferation of Pay What You Wish (PWYW) cafes and restaurants.  At these mostly nonprofit enterprises, customers are asked to pay a suggested price.  Suspended payment, or Pay It Forward (PIF) as it is sometimes known, has the advantage of revenue stability; a business is only giving away a meal for which payment has already been made.  PWYW is more dependent on the generosity of others.  Denise Cerreta, founder of One World Everybody Eats, a nonprofit that assists with the incubation and launch of PWYW cafes, advises that to be successful about 80 percent of customers need to pay the suggested price or more (2).  Both approaches seek the same goal of shared costs and shared spaces.

In 2013, thanks to a viral Facebook post, suspended coffee hit the mainstream.  Every newspaper and digital media site ran a story, mostly positive, although at least one of the edgier online sites ran a hot take calling the idea “stupid and inefficient.”  While a pay-it-forward (PIF) system can end up being just a way for regular customers to buy each other cups of coffee, when integrated into a social enterprise café, suspended payment can be a real force for social good.  The most important result of the practice of suspended payment is the fostering of community, and this spirit of community was certainly a guiding principle at one of America’s earliest incarnations of this phenomenon.

In 1931 Clifton’s Cafeteria opened in Los Angeles, most likely the first instance of a suspended payment restaurant in the US (quite literally, as they had a neon sign over the door proclaiming PAY WHAT YOU WISH).  Although it operated as a for-profit business, Clifton’s served 10,000 free meals in its first three months of operation.  With demand so high at the height of the Great Depression, they soon opened another cafeteria where meals sold for a penny, roughly equivalent to fifteen cents today.  Clifton’s instituted their own version of suspended payment by selling tickets to individuals and businesses that could be handed out to those who could not afford to purchase a meal. They fed two million people in two years (3).

For CK members, whose social enterprises provide important revenues to fund programs, the thought of tinkering with the profit model may seem risky.  After all, more than half of all new restaurants fail in their first year of operation, and 80 percent are closed after five years (4).  Whether or not a suspended payment systems actually works can depend a lot on how it is implemented.  Communication with customers is paramount, and patrons need to understand the process.  In this way it can become an essential part of the business and its community.

New Moon Café, operated by Catalyst Kitchens member 150 Cherry Street in Burlington, VT, began offering suspended payments about three years ago.  They made a strategic decision at that time to allow the program to grow organically, by word of mouth, in order to hedge against being “overwhelmed” as it developed.  “As best you can, you need to keep it on a relational level,” Rebecca Christie, Café Manager explains.  “If the program gets too big too quickly, and you don’t know the people coming in, you can lose control a little.  We worked to slowly expand our program, at first inviting people through local service providers to bring their clients in for a free meal or coffee. ”

New Moon Café invites their customers to join them in the suspended payment program.  Customers can buy a coffee for $2 or a meal for $4, and New Moon matches that amount as well.  The purchases are tallied on a chalk board.  This way guests coming in to take advantage of a suspended purchase can see right away what is available.  Although many ask for their suspended food or coffee to go, New Moon encourages these patrons to stay.  “We try to find the happy medium where we can all share the same room, break down barriers, and expand social norms,” says Christie. “Our homeless friends get to know the staff and regular customers, and they have a place they can enjoy a meal or a coffee, no differently than anyone else.”

Catalyst Kitchens member Manna on Main Street of Lansdale, PA, opened Common Grounds Café in the fall of 2016.  Manna hopes to add a PIF model at the café in its second year.  “Our café manager is doing it somewhat informally now,” says Program Director Kristyn DiDominick.  “We think that will be successful, but because we are so new we want to wrap our heads around the social enterprise fundamentals before we take on anything else.”  Manna’s commitment to implementing suspended payments is driven by their mission and the importance of inclusive, shared spaces.  “Because we serve so many individuals at Manna who have some level of need or are living with limited resources we really don’t feel comfortable offering a café for some and not others,” DiDominick reasons.  “We want everyone to have complete access to all the food that is available.”

Kristyn DiDominick also points to Ray Oldenburg’s The Good Great Place, as an important influence.  In his book, Oldenburg argues for the need in America for third places, “the public places on neutral ground where people can gather and interact, in contrast to first places (home) and second places (work).  These spaces promote social equity by leveling the status of guests, providing a setting for creating habits of public association and offering psychological support to individuals and communities” (5).  Creating third places with reduced economic barriers to entry can benefit communities and contribute to bringing dignity to everyone in them.

Back in Depression era Los Angeles, Clifton’s Cafeteria founder Clifford Clinton said it best when responding to critics of his program to offer meals with dignity: “Why should the deserving go hungry because of this, when the mingling with these good folks has taught us what we did was really the right thing.”