Recipe For Success: Karma Kitchen Serves Up Generosity

What would you do if the next time you ask for your bill after dining out, your server said, “There is no charge, your meal was paid for by the person who came before you”? Yep, that’s right, nothing, zip, zilch — on your bill. You literally see “$0.00.”

In a world and society where we’re taught, “If it’s too good to be true, it’s NOT,” it’s hard to believe.

In this case, you have to feel it, experience it — to believe it.

Every Sunday at Taste of the Himalayas restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., Karma Kitchen is cooking up kindness and generosity across the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s a volunteer-run experiment in generosity that is growing.

On your zero-dollar and zero-cent bill, there is a kind note that reads, “Your meal was a gift from someone who came before you. To keep the chain of gifts alive, we invite you to pay it forward for those who dine after you.” Patrons can choose to pay nothing or pay for only what they feel is right.

The recipe for this generous idea began three years ago, with Viral and Pavi Mehta and a group of friends. “It’s an excuse to start a conversation about generosity,” Viral said, with a kind, genuine and humble voice. Included in the morning’s training session are lots of hugs as approximately a dozen volunteers gather in a circle; a moment of silence, introductions and stories of why all the volunteers are spending a Sunday morning, volunteering to greet, cook and serve complete strangers.

One volunteer tells me her impetus to give back started one morning when she was rushing out the door to a final exam and her car wouldn’t start. A neighbor saw her in distress and offered to give her a ride. Moved by the small act of kindness, she was inspired to pay it forward. When a friend told her about Karma Kitchen, she jumped at the opportunity. “The volunteers are here to serve, there’s no ulterior motive, no paycheck, they want to give back,” Pavi said with passion.

This project is just one of several experiments under the umbrella of Charity Focus, an “incubator of gift economy projects that inspires people to be the change they wish to see,” according to founder Nipun Mehta. “A gift economy is an economic system in which goods and services are given freely, rather than traded. In a market economy, one’s wealth is increased by ‘saving.’ In contrast, in a gift economy, wealth is decreased by hoarding, for it is the circulation of the gifts within the community that leads to increase: increase in connections, increase in relationship strength.”

It is hard to put into words the magic, songs and stories of giving shared — that unfold and swirl under the roof of this bustling restaurant when Karma Kitchen is underway. It’s infectious. You want to give back, unconditionally.

Come as a volunteer customer and feel for yourself. The smell, the stories and the kindness swirling around will make you hungry to help others and give back. Here’s a tip from a soon-to-be-repeat customer:

1. Volunteers, sign up online early as there is a waiting list to serve
2. Eat at a community table and meet new friends
3. Visit and receive gifts from the Kindness Table
4. Say thank you
5. Pay it forward
6. Be ready to be inspired to be a chain in the circle of giving
7. Enjoy!

The generosity is spreading: Karma Kitchens are now also open in Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Buon Appetito & Cheers!

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