400 Rupee Tip At the Seva Caf

Oct 18, 2005

I've never waited tables at a restaurant. So I pretend to play that role on the opening night of my friend's restaurant inauguration.

I force a couple of friends to be my mock customers. All of a sudden, within the next ten minutes, the entire roof-top restaurant is filled with people and the guy holding the pen and the piece of paper -- me -- becomes the defacto waiter.

Seva Caf?, as it is appropriately called, is no ordinary eatery. Like Analakshmi's chain of restaurants, you don't get charged for your food here. Your food is served by volunteers and paid for, as a gift, by a past guest whom you don't know; after your meal, your voluntary contribution keeps the chain of gifts alive by paying for a future guest. Instead of our current 'exchange' economy where you give in order to receive, here you are radically altering that paradigm by first receiving unconditionally and then sharing that experience with someone unknown.

"Isn't this a risky proposition?" an entrepreneur-like guest asks me in a matter-of-fact tone. Indeed, it is an extremely expensive wager by Jayeshbhai Patel and his Manav Sadhna team to see how far you can really stretch the Pay-It-Forward model. The C.G. Road location is prime real estate, the operational costs are heavy in a city like Ahmedabad, and the return on investment is practically gauranteed to be nil (or less). Yet, Jayeshbhai's response is: "In the worst case, we have fed people with our hearts."

Sitting under the bright moon at 2:30AM, the night before launch, I ask, "And imagine just *one* guest being truly moved by our offerings and carrying that forward into the world?" In a way, that became our silent promise. I waited tables for the next three days, from its 7-10PM operational hours, and at the end of the day, Jayeshbhai would ask me about the miracle-of-the-day.

Sure enough, I had a story for each day.

Day one. A group of five sits at a table. Two professional looking women, one twenty-something with a cap, one Australian girl on an exchange program, and a twelve year old girl named Sachi. "Do you know about the concept of the Seva Caf??" "Sort of. Can you explain it again?"

As I learned from experience, Seva Caf? is a difficult concept for which to have an elevator speech. About 37 years ago, Lewis Hyde wrote a seminal work that coined the word "gift economy"; like your local blood bank and many religiously inspired projects, there are many examples of gift economies, but the strength of this one is that the risk is born entirely by an everyday hero and not a high-profile guru or a million dollar foundation. And outside of two chefs, everyone is a volunteer: hosts, waiters, servers, cleaners, and most of the cooks are volunteers.

I explain the concept. Within a couple of minutes, the twelve year old interupts me, "Can I volunteer?" "Of course. What would you like to do?" "Well, I can cook." "Oh really. What can you cook?" "I can make desserts, pasta, ..."

"Pasta? Really? Well, this gentleman on the table next to you has volunteered to cook pasta next Monday. Would you like to join him?" I ask. She looks at her mom, already beaming with joyous pride, who gives her the nod and they trade numbers. That gentleman was none other than a CharityFocus volunteer named Mark Jacobs. :)

Day two ends up drawing more people than day one. At the inauguration, I had spoken to three youngsters who had started a youth organization named Yuva. They do service projects, throw parties, and somehow attract a lot of attention. When we spoke, we really connected. Today, about 15-20 of them gathered, as we discussed service, money, happiness, and the spirit of coming alive in every moment. And after that, I invited them to eat at the Seva Caf?. It was a perfect set-up. :)

In a way, they were shocked to see me go from a "guest speaker" to a "waiter". One of the Indicorps leaders, Dharmesh, also said, "It feels so weird to see you as a waiter." Guri, of course, was complaining that I'm not delivering her water quick enough and that the placement of the fork wasn't right. :) But it all felt perfectly natural to me! By the end of the meal, two of the Yuva youth got up and started waiting tables and committed to doing so once a week. Their charismatic founder, Amitabh, said their group would like to volunteer for the entire Seva Caf? two days of the month. Everyone gets pumped to know that such a space could exist in a me-versus-world culture.

And then there was this one unassuming twenty-something girl who came up to me right as she was about to leave.

"I'd like to give you this," she softly says while dropping a stack of folded hundred rupee bills in my hand. "Thanks for the donation to Seva Caf?. You can just leave it anonymously in that envelope and be sure that it will reach the right place," I respond. She quickly responds, "No, no, this is for you." "For me?" "Yeah, I was wondering if you could do something good for someone, on my behalf, with this money?"

Wow. For a second, I didn't know what to say. In the whirlwind of bodies moving left and right, orders from this table and that and questions from all kinds of puzzled faces, this came as a stunning surprise. After a moment of stillness, with my jaw half open, I look deeply in her eyes to see what I could say. Although my typical response would've been to rebound ideas to get her to engage in some acts, I felt like she was a sister attempting to connect our journeys over a bridge of service. Very spontaneously I say, "Thank you."

A bit later, I pay-forward that 400 rupee tip to four youngsters. (More stories on that later :)).

Day three, more of the same goodness. Every day is a different yet small menu prepared by many volunteers. While the mouth-watering food is elegantly presented, Seva Caf?'s draw is its concept. While talking to a friend on the phone, I told him about the space: "It's a roof-top restaurant where you can't pay for your own meal; next to it is a cooperative shop of nine nonprofit organizations selling rural artisan goods; in an A/C room we even hope to setup a pay-it-forward style Internet caf?. The whole point is to send out ripples of goodness in the world." After some further explanation, he asserts, "I'm coming to Ahmedabad next week. Tell me how many computers you need for the caf?. I'd like to donate them."

In the back corner of the restaurant is a very jovial guest, who turns out to be the CEO of a very popular brand of spices which are imported world-wide. By the end of his meal, he tells me, "If you train me, I'd like to volunteer to be a waiter." Absolutely shocked by his offer, his wife and friend on the table says, "Please, please, sign him up. We will invite all our friends that day too!" Indeed, it's happening this Friday. (His wife also volunteered to lead the cooking, but she insists on being a guest on the day her husband is waiting tables. :))

One after another, people naturally respond to the caf?'s trust in the power of compassion. At the end of the night is a birthday celebration for one of the guests; we gather all the guests, pickup a few gifts from the store (aka 'Gramshree'), and take several photos as memoirs for him. Touched, birthday-boy Pankaj jokes, "My parents will be shocked to find out that I have so many friends in India!"

Day four. A stylish woman in her forties comes up to me and challenges me in a confident tone, "Gandhi said that you should act while thinking of benefit for the poorest man. How do you think such a place on C.G. Road is helping the poor?" Immediately I say, "Through you." "Through me?" "Yeah, the whole idea of the place is to radically shift people from a give-to-receive attitude to a receive-and-express-gratitude mentality. When anyone does that, it addresses the source of all human inequities ... in our own hearts. Without that shift in mindset, we will never be able to address poverty." She looks to me and says, "Who are you?" "I'm a waiter," I tell her with a straight smile. "I mean, what do you do during the day?" she counters. "I used to be in the computer field and now I'm focusing on doing some seva," I say. "No, I'm asking because I run a chain of clothing stores and I'd like to get your perspective on how I can include spirituality in business." One more ripple goes out in the world.

Day five. More good stuff. The owner of a designer Pepe store comes up to visit on his birthday; he had come the day before and now he brought his brother, wife and best friend just to "show them that such a place exists." The guy who runs an auditorium on the third floor also joins us with his wife; by the end of his meal, his wife volunteers to make a dessert for the next day and expressed a sincere desire to feed all Seva Caf? volunteers at their house. Ripples start inside out, not the other way.

Jayeshbhai, Anarben and I were eating pani-puri and sharing stories about the 400 rupee tip, the shock-value reactions from unexpected guests, and the newly engaged volunteers. By and by, I also learned that the carpenter who helped build the store has stopped charging for his services. His excuse: "I just like being here." We think he has voluntarily volunteered to be a volunteer. :)

In one middle-class shopping joint of Ahmedabad, goodness has planted a deep seed. Like Manubhai the carpenter, I also just like being here.

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"Service doesn't start when you have something to give; it blossoms naturally when you have nothing left to take."

"Real privilege lies in knowing that you have enough."