Wade McCullough is sitting at a picnic table talking with two customers when I walk into Karma Cafe. He invites me to join them and then brings me a cup of coffee from the kitchen, which is largely open to the front of the restaurant. M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” is playing in there and one of the cooks is nodding to the beat.
McCullough is preternaturally calm and and soft-spoken; one gets the idea that he could diffuse any argument with relative ease. Every time a customer walks in he rises to greet them, or, more often, give them a hug and ask how they’re doing. Karma Cafe has been here just over a year, but it’s already a fixture in the lives of many people in the community.
Karma Cafe is special because it encourages customers to pay it forward—for each customer who pays standard price, some of the price of the meal goes toward a “meal voucher” that can be claimed by somebody who can’t afford to pay for their meal. It’s a unique business model, to say the least. The system is inevitably taken advantage of by some who don’t really need the free meal, but there are also some who pay more than their share to make up for it.
McCullough got the idea for Karma Cafe when he was couchsurfing through Australia several years back and came upon Lentil as Anything, a not-for-profit restaurant in Sydney that serves food to everyone who comes in, regardless of how much (or if) they can pay. (“The founder there really loved an Australian metal band called Mental as Anything,” McCullough says when I raise my eyebrows at the name.) He began volunteering in the kitchen there for a while, and eventually got a paid job as a cook. When he moved back to his hometown of Albuquerque, he decided he would try to open up a similar place of his own. All this brainstorming started about five years ago. He opened the Food Karma food truck, which served donation-based meals—breakfast burritos and carne adovada tacos and steaming bowls of hearty posolé—at the Downtown Grower’s Market in the spring of 2016. The brick-and-mortar restaurant opened in November of that year, and began serving many of the same dishes, along with a rotating menu of specials based on what’s in season (and what’s been donated to the café recently). When I visit, the lunch specials are Indian curry, which comes with a generous portion of basmati rice, naan and onion pakora, and French onion soup topped with melty brie-covered toast.
As much time and effort as McCullough has put into Karma Cafe, he’s quick to point out that he didn’t build the place up on his own. “There’s some strong players that have helped out along the way,” he says, smiling at the two customers who share our table.
These are April and Rudy, who have become dedicated regulars at the café. They’re both retired and have grown daughters who’ve moved away from home, and they’ve appreciated Karma Cafe’s open-door policy during lean times. But they don’t just benefit from the café; they’ve pitched in to help when help was needed. They’ve brought in food donations when they could and volunteered their time in and outside of the kitchen—Rudy even helped fix their ventilation hood. It’s folks like them that have changed the tide when the restaurant was struggling.
“It’s been turbulent for sure,” McCullough says when I ask him how the café’s first year of business has been. The concept of paying an extra, unspecified amount along with the meal’s price to help an anonymous person in need makes some people feel a little put on the spot. But the people at Karma Cafe are far from judging just how generous each customer is being. They understand that one week you may be able to pay extra, and one week you may have to claim one of the meal vouchers for yourself.
Melinda and Faith, two other regular customers at the café, are grateful for the meal vouchers, and for the lack of stigma attached to using them. “We knew we would never be turned away,” Faith says. “It’s like a family to me. They help me out when I’m in need, and I try to help them out when they’re in need.” When she hears me coughing (from the chest cold that everyone in the city has had at least once this winter) she asks if I’ve had the apple cider, then promptly orders me a mug of it, assuring me it’s delicious—it is.
I try to pay for the cider at the counter when I’m leaving, but the cashier just shakes his head and winks at me. “One hand washes the other,” he says. “Get us back next time.” I plan on it.