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Crosscurrents logo 2021

The Sharing Economy: Lunch with a side of karma


Snappy’s Cafe in Hayward is usually a good place to grab a quick cup of coffee, or maybe a pastry before heading to work. Either could run you anywhere from a $1.50 to $3. But on the third Sunday of every month, Snappy’s transforms.

Today, the menu consists of refreshing coconut juice, a South Indian snack called idli, and eggplant chutney. It’s all provided by a local Indian caterer and served by volunteers. Shruti Hegde is one of them, and she treats people as if she were in her own living room.

“Everybody who walks in, they’re our personal guest, like the way we would welcome any guest at home, and we would serve them exactly the way that we would serve them at a home,” says Hegde.

The check that patrons get after this meal – no matter what they ate – shows the same amount: $0.00.

Welcome to Karma Kitchen. It’s not a physical place; it’s more like a practice. Even though it’s small, it’s growing in a handful of cities, including Washington and Chicago, as well as in India and Japan. On a weekly or monthly basis, these places offer an alternative to the standard fare: customers receive a meal free of charge, and they can opt to donate something – or not – to keep the gift moving along to the next person.

Volunteer Sandy Frost says this is a lot like “somebody paying ahead for you at the toll plaza; you know, when you come up to the bridge and you get to go for free because the car ahead of you has paid in advance.”

Frost and Hegde met while working on a neighborhood garden together. Giving seems to be a way of life for Hegde. She offers free yoga and cooking classes in her Hayward home, as well as volunteering with Karma Kitchen.

“I was searching for what I wanted as a more traditional practice here, close to home, and I found it and it’s just been wonderful. I’ve been practicing with them for two years,” Frost says.

Hegde got involved with Karma Kitchen when it began at Taste of the Himalayas in Berkeley. It was started by Service Space: an organization that promotes volunteerism as a way to counterbalance what drives our economy.

Nipun Mehta, founder of Service Space and the first Karma Kitchen, has become the public face of this movement to pay it forward, what he calls “giftivism.”

Mehta sees Karma Kitchen as both a way to encourage generosity, and a good business practice. He understands why business-owners may consider it risky, so that’s why volunteers pay rent to use their space.

“We cover all their costs for the day, so the restaurant isn’t making much of a sacrifice – it’s actually got everything to gain. But it just feels like a foreign idea … So there’s a lot of questions that will come up, but financial isn’t one of them,” says Mehta.

In fact, guests of Karma Kitchen remember the host restaurant, and they go back on other days. The owner of Taste of the Himalayas, where it started, observed a benefit.

“He then saw that all of the other days, he was hitting record traffic, and he himself would say that he’s made more money in a down economy than he’s ever made before,” says Mehta.

I asked Mehta how he’d convince a restaurant-owner to let Karma Kitchen take over for an afternoon.

“I would say, first of all, that they take a pause and don’t just think about their business sense. This will make them feel good about what their business is doing and what it stands for. Secondly, it’s an amazing way to put your restaurant out there – it’s actually social marketing for your restaurant. And thirdly, you’re participating in a larger cultural shift from consumption to contribution,” Mehta explains.

That implies a shift from a “me” culture to a “we” culture, and from fear to generosity, says Mehta. This is in contrast to our monetary system, where motivation to work comes from an atmosphere of scarcity and competition.

Mehta says our individual, consumer-based culture has cheapened human relationships, and that projects like Karma Kitchen counter that.

Back in Hayward, Mehta’s message makes sense to April Yamaguchi. She’s the owner of Snappy’s Cafe. She first got involved after seeing Karma Kitchen in action in Berkeley, and she was asked to host one at Snappy’s after the Berkeley Kitchen became inactive. Yamaguchi says she sees the benefits beyond her bottom line.

Even though the spirit of Karma Kitchen is to receive and then give what you can, it’s totally possible to eat and never donate to the program. Volunteer Shruti Hegde admits that she saw that happen occasionally at Berkeley’s Karma Kitchen.

“There are some people who only come for that, but for that we know we have to shower them with more generosity, more abundance…. But once we explain them everything, they experience the gift, and they know that this is a gift that people are giving them, something happens in them, a transformation,” says Hegde.

“I try to be as positive as I can, because it’s a great thing. It makes other people happy. It makes me happy. It makes our society, our community overall better, ‘cause if you be negative to another person, how would they feel? …. How are they going to react to the next person they see?” asks Jia Run Chen.

Ninth grader Jia Run Chen came by to see how he could volunteer in the future. He says it’s really about spreading a good attitude.

The positive effects of these transactions can’t be measured in dollars and cents. But good karma really is a long-term investment.

This story has previously aired on Crosscurrents. 

The Berkeley Karma Kitchen is currently on retreat. Check the website for its return date.