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Meridian Deli Tries the 'Pay-What-You-Can' Model


  • Bread of Life Community Deli
The idea of paying what you can in restaurants is becoming a bit more common across the nation and, in a select number of instances, the Treasure Valley. But what is viable for some, may not work for others.

This past May, Cameron McCown, owner of the Bread of Life Deli in Meridian, erased the prices from his menu and now the deli's patrons pay only what they can (or want).

“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he said. “I knew what was right for us, and we weren’t doing it.”
If customers are unable to pay for their meal, they can volunteer at the deli in order to pay for food. McCown told Boise Weekly that the deli has one customer, who is without a home, but volunteers for three hours a week, in exchange for three meals a week.

“We don’t ask questions,” McCown said, adding that anyone can volunteer if they want.

While McCown is sure that the pay-what-you-can method is right for his business, he says that it doesn’t come without difficulty.

“We don’t know what anyone’s going to pay,” he said. “It’s an honor system.”

McCown is not the first Treasure Valley business owner to experiment with the pay-what-you-can method. Heather Andrade, owner of Perks of Life, a coffee shop in Eagle, reverted her business back to traditional methods of payment on August 10 after 13 months of allowing people to pay what they wanted.

“My vision for [the coffee shop] was a pay it forward system,” Andrade said. “People had the opportunity to pay less if they had less.”

This system, however, did not work out the way Andrade had hoped. Very few people paid more or equal to what they normally would, she said, meaning the business wasn’t financially sustainable.

“A lot of people were very uncomfortable coming up with their own price,” she said, adding that many of her customers underestimated prices. “I felt like they were taking advantage.”

Andrade instead says she wants to continue giving back to the community in different ways. She plans to switch to a more straightforward “pay it forward” method of business soon. Customers will pay for their own food and have the option to either donate money or pay for the next patron.

McCown, on the other hand, hopes that the pay-what-you-can method will continue to work for his business. Business for him has been up and down in the last few months, but he is hopeful that he will continue to break even.

“I think everyone is paying a bit less than before, but we’re feeding more people,” he said. “We show that we love people by feeding them… it’s a joy to do that on a daily basis.”