Editorial: A bit of ‘Robin Hood’ at the Haymarket Cafe

  • A jar and sign at Haymarket Cafe explaining the Common Account, a donation system used to feed people who can’t afford to pay. gazette file photo

Published: 1/28/2020 2:13:15 PM

In Madrid, Spain, there’s a “Robin Hood Restaurant,” where the more affluent who eat breakfast and lunch foot the bill to help feed the poor and homeless who show up for dinner.

At the Sakina Halal Grill in Washington, D.C., the poor, homeless and hungry eat for free, and the waiters serve them in the dining room, as if they’re full-paying customers.

Closer to home in Fall River, Massachusetts, the Your Way Restaurant has a “Pay it Forward” plan in partnership with a nonprofit that includes a $5 menu item customers can order for others in need.

Which brings us to the Haymarket Cafe in downtown Northampton, where customers from all walks of life can munch on heavily-discounted meals through the use of a “Common Account,” a nearly three-year initiative that has evolved as a way to address the issue of hunger in the community through a sliding-scale menu.

Though the specifics vary in each establishment, the message is clear: “You matter.”

That’s why Northampton should be proud that it has its own version of Robin Hood at the Haymarket Cafe. Last year alone, the cafe served 4,358 meals through its Common Account program, and offset 89% of the cost of those meals with $46,865 in donations made by other customers.

Haymarket owner Peter Simpson deflects praise to customers and cooks, calling himself merely a “conduit,” but he’s much more than that. Like any good leader, he set the tone by establishing a highly-important value — to address hunger in a systemic way — and then implementing the Common Account to bring that value to fruition.

It hasn’t been a smooth ride since the Common Account launched in 2017. Haymarket initially lost money by allowing customers who used the account to pay what they wanted. Instead of abandoning the concept, Simpson refined it by setting a fixed cost for each meal and shrinking the hours when the account can be used. Now, account users pay $3 to buy nearly any dish on the menu between 12 and 9 p.m., take a seat inside the Main Street cafe and enjoy a meal.

“They’re like a normal customer,” Simpson told Gazette reporter Bera Dunau earlier this month, referring to the homeless and others who use the account.

Of course, the program only works if those with a little extra money believe in its mission and donate whatever they can to the cause. It’s a tangible way to help the restaurant address some of the often-discussed issues in Northampton around homelessness, hunger and panhandling. “We wanted to address this in our own way, as members of our community, and as a small business that is partly sustained from selling food,” Haymarket explains on its website.

The city is fortunate to have a business willing to go beyond the bottom line, and we hope its Common Account continues to gain traction in the years ahead.

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