Haymarket dishes up jar of generosity


For the Gazette

Published: 06-01-2017 11:03 AM

NORTHAMPTON — A man in an oversized jacket walked out of Haymarket Cafe on Tuesday morning carrying a cardboard sign asking for coffee, cash or anything strangers could spare. It was a request the cafe is prepared to fulfill, at least with food, thanks to a new pay-what-you-can program.

A few months ago, the restaurant created a common account to which customers can donate. Those who can’t afford the full price of a meal can use the account to pay off the balance. Cash donations are accepted at a jar by the register, as well as when paying with a credit or debit card.

Owner Peter Simpson said that it can be hard to know how to address the homelessness of others. “I’ve had that quandary myself. I wanted to think of a way I could address the issue more systematically.”

Haymarket already welcomed transient people, especially during the winter months. The employees and Simpson wanted to find a way to give them food, too. Simpson had heard of other restaurants successfully maintaining a common account, so, a few months ago, he decided to try it.

Haymarket initially offered just a rice and veggie bowl on a pay-what-you-can basis, but in-need customers didn’t often want that particular meal, Simpson said. More money came in than went out.

Simpson said it felt wrong to turn a profit from the account. To even the scales, he decided to offer the restaurant’s full menu to those in need.

As word of the account spread, though, people started to overstretch the account, manager Jerome Golden said. Customers sometimes took two or three meals for free. In response, Haymarket changed the rules. Now, orders using funds from the account cannot be taken to go.

The account now runs mostly at a deficit, with about $50 coming in each day, Simpson said, while about $80 goes out.

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Golden said the account does more than provide sustenance. It also helps in-need people — whether they are homeless or just lack the funds to eat out regularly — feel welcome in broader community spaces.

Bryan Guyette, 28, donated money to the account Tuesday morning after he ordered. He said he notices and values the inclusive atmosphere at Haymarket.

“There’s a community function in going out to eat and being able to share space,” Guyette said. “Giving $5 isn’t the same as giving people space.” By donating to the Haymarket common account, patrons help provide food — and a place to share it.

Haymarket has been on the forefront of socially-minded changes in the restaurant industry. All employees at the cafe make $15 an hour, more than the $11 state minimum wage. The restaurant leveled wages for all employees in 2015, eliminating tips for servers and baristas, to close the pay gap between front-of-the-house employees and kitchen workers.

Golden said refusing tips for employees can help drive donations to the account. People frequently try to give workers tips. When employees say they can’t accept, they suggest customers put the money toward the shared account.

Guyette, who also works in the restaurant industry, said Haymarket’s belief in higher wages and community-building makes the cafe an appealing place to eat.

“It’s one of my favorite places not only in Northampton, but in the county,” Guyette said.

Simpson said despite the account’s running losses, he will continue it, though changes might need to be made.

“To me, in the long run, it does seem viable,” Simpson said. “My challenge is to make it work.”