Vancouver Sun Newspaper

Pay What You Want Dining Priceless

Mia Stainsby   May 16   link to article

It's right out of the idiot's guide to running a business, but by gosh, if it doesn't turn out to be a lesson for cynics like me.

This isn't a world full of greed, scams, fraud and Bernie Madoffs after all. There isn't a shark at every turn and people can be trusted to behave with a certain amount of grace.

Take the public response to a get-greedy-quick opportunity for the restaurant-goers.

Some in the restaurant industry in North America are relying on the honour system -- the pay-what-you-want (or in some cases, what-you-can) model of payment to lure customers or in some cases, trusting in a "pay it forward" kind of karma. Predictably, this model is based on honour. Well, it seems honour exists.

In Whistler, Joe Facciolo and partner Skai Dalziel started the Whistler Tasting Tours last December just as the floor gave way in the economy. The tour takes guests to five Whistler restaurants with a dish and a wine at each.

On one of the tours, there's a champagne sabreing lesson included. The regular price is $149 (tip and taxes included) and TripAdvisor rates it the No. 1 attraction out of 42 in its popularity index. Since December, about 600 people have done the tour.

But desperate times call for off-grid measures, so the partners decided to hop on the pay-what-you-can bandwagon for the month of May and so far, about 50 have taken up the offer.

"People might have trouble wrapping their head around it at first, but it's going great," says Facciolo. "The experience speaks for itself. At the end of the night, people pay what they deem appropriate." On average, people pay about $130. "A lot are paying full price because they're so pleased," he says.

The participating restaurants are Bearfoot Bistro, Hy's Steakhouse, Kypriaki Notre, FireRock Lounge, Elements, Quattro, Mallard Lounge, Mountain Club Lounge.

Some of the dishes include blackened ahi tuna; six hour, slow-roasted lamb; pan-seared salmon with vegetables; gnocchi pomodoro and cheese plates with chocolate covered strawberries.

"We generally tell people what it costs. Most people want a guideline," Facciolo says. "We were warned there would be scammers out there but our guests spend three and a half hours with the guide and most have such a great time it would be tough to look the guide in the eye and say they're not paying anything. If someone were to do that, them's the breaks."

They don't plan to extend the payment scheme past May, which is a slow month in Whistler.

In the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Terra Bite Lounge, a coffee shop, is like an experiment in social behaviour. People pay what they want in a metal lock box and no one's watching. While other pay-what-you-can or -want schemes post a suggested retail cost, there are no menu prices at Terra Bite (play on terabyte) and the owners (one of them a Google programmer) says the generous patrons make up for the freeloaders, depending perhaps on karma or paying it forward.

In Montreal, the Taverne Crescent, instituted pay-what-you-can with the thinking that those who can't pay today might be back in the future with money to spend. The owners say they were inspired by a similar payment plan across the pond in London.

There are variations on this recession theme. Altruism drives SAME (So All Might Eat) Cafe in Denver, Co. with an underlying philosophy that everyone deserves to eat.

Instead of dine and dashers, they have dine and dishwashers, dine and weed-the-gardeners or dine and sweepers. Salt Lake City has One World, which operates in the same way. At the latter, patrons have rewarded the do-good owners with a car, new dishes, carpet-cleaning, property for an organic gardening, and an irrigation system.

And perhaps, the example that most resonates "recession," is the free dinner at Nino's 208 in New York. Owner Nino Selimaj offered free meals to victims of Bernie Madoff for one week last March.

The free-mealers had to bring in a monthly statement form from Madoff to prove victimhood. When asked how he'd know if patrons forged Madoff statements, he replied: "Not everybody is like Madoff."

Seems he's right.

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