I have written in other contexts about the brilliance and imagination of my friend, John Silliphant, one of the major creative forces behind CharityFocus. I have been meaning to write for years about the vision and organizational wizardry of my friend Jayesh Patel, one of the founders of Manav Sadhana, an astonishingly innovative and effective NGO based in the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad. This is the story of the magic that happens when two big-hearted, big-ideas guys team up – and when their vision is taken up by an army of enthusiastic young volunteers.
Thursday night, Seva Café opened its doors and served its first guests. Once the meals had been eaten, and the plates were cleared by the all-volunteer wait-staff, the diners received no bill. Their dinners had been gifted to them, as pure acts of service.
This was not a one-off ritual, an opening-night riff, or a special meals-on-the-house event. The act of giving is the very business model around which Seva Café has been conceived. It is a radical, optimistic social experiment in what John calls the “gift economy”: what would happen, he wondered, if there were a business that was so steeped in the ideals of seva (the ancient Sanskrit word for “service”) that the financial support came not from arms-length, market-driven exchanges of goods and services for money, but from a circle of giving driven entirely by participation in, and appreciation for the inherent value of the enterprise?
Jayesh-bhai, who my friend Nipun Mehta calls “the man who makes dreams of compassion come true,” had only to hear the idea and Seva Café was born.
One of the exciting things to have observed over the last several days is how teams of volunteers, whose only restaurant experience has been eating in them, have transformed concept into reality. Smita Jain heads the volunteer effort, presently comprised largely of people from the Manav Sadhana, Indicorps, and CharityFocus communities. These volunteers have worked long days and sleepless nights to bring café into being.
The café itself sits atop a contemporary shopping building on Ahmedabad’s Stylish CG Road. The each table has a view of the night sky, situated in a lovely patio. The entry and kitchen areas are sheltered beneath open-trussed tile-roof vestibules that border the dining area on two sides. The décor is simple yet elegant, combining design elements that succeed precisely because they play off apparent contradictions. The mosaic tile floor is both sophisticated in its sleekness, and playful in its execution, incorporating the café’s signature garland pattern (designed by Loveleen Dhillon) and waves of color that sweep up the food-service counter from the brilliant white floor like a mirage in the desert. The space is sleek, uncluttered, and decidedly minimalist – especially by Indian standards – but its clean lines are both warmed by, and serve to highlight, a deft use of traditional architectural elements such as hand-carved doors and window frames from Kachchh, hand-made lantern shades, and a gorgeous Gujurati swing-bench that hangs from one of the trusses. The place reflects the unerring aesthetic instincts of Anar Patel, Jayesh’s wife, partner in service, co-founder of Manav Sadhana and Gramshree, and, along with the angelic Anjali Desai, master of the Seva Café kitchen.
But the amazing thing about Seva Café is not the beautiful décor. It’s not even about the care that goes into serving food that is wholesome, delicious, and, where possible, is sourced entirely from local organic producers. It is about the enthusiasm, love (I know how trite that sounds, but it is the only way I can accurately describe it for you), and overwhelming sense of community that permeates the place. It is exactly what one might expect from a venture built on the act of giving – especially if one has the foresight and clarity of vision of a John Siliphant or a Jayesh Patel.
To really appreciate the radical beauty of the Seva Café concept, and how it differs from, say, a soup kitchen or the original conception of the Analaxmi restaurants, I am reprinting two sections from the Seva Café Handbook. These describe the “circle of giving” that stands at the very core of the “gift economy” and the nature of financial model upon which the restaurant is based. They are somewhat lengthy, but well-worth reading.
Seva Café – An Experiment in the Circle of Giving
Seva Café is inspired by the same spirit of service that drives the beautiful work of NGOs and private individuals who selflessly give to others. This restaurant is an experiment in bringing that spirit of service further into the mainstream community and in inviting everyone to join together in a circle of giving.
Most of the workers at Seva Café are freely giving their time to serve you. In the process, they are intentionally cultivating their personal ideals of selflessness, grace, and generosity. In this way, Seva Café is a “school of service” for all of us who work to make your experience here happy, nutritional, and satisfying.
The food we present to you is offered in the truest spirit of giving – without a price tag.
You, our guests, bring the giving full circle – and your gifts are twofold. First, by dining with us, you have given us the opportunity to serve, which we cherish. Second, you are encouraged to participate in keeping this café alive by contributing financially. Give whatever amount of money feels right in your heart.
This is a nonprofit enterprise. All revenues generated in excess of our expenses will be channeled to fund charitable programs. Our expenses in running this café will be transparent and available to all, so you can see our costs, how much we take in, and where the money goes. Since this café is a community experiment, we welcome your suggestions of local NGOs in Ahmedabad to whom we should consider making donations with the “profits” from our circle of giving.
Our Financial Model: Participate in this Experiment
Seva Café works on a contribute-as-you-wish model. It is important that you understand exactly what this means – both for the sustainability of this restaurant and for the hopeful new way of looking at economic interdependency that our model represents.
Contribute-as-you-wish means what it says: you, and only you, determine how much you will give to Seva Café at the end of your experience here. Our finances are completely transparent, and it is simple to determine the minimum amount of money the café will need to take in from each guest if it is to stay in operation. But ultimately, judgments about the care that was taken to bring you wholesome food, the pleasantness of the environment in which you enjoyed your meal, the spirit of our project, and the overall nature of your experience here will be for you to decide – and to express by means of contribution.
We also know that contribute-as-you-wish can be misunderstood. The money you give to sustain this place is not “payment” for your meal, cloaked in another word. The food you will have received is truly intended as a gift – something to be received without demand for exchange. We do not want “contribute” to simply be taken as a clever substitute for “pay.”
“Contribution” implies participation, involvement, and support. You contribute to our mission just by sitting at our tables, showing your support for locally produced, wholesomely prepared food, and allowing us the opportunity to serve you. Your financial contribution at the meal’s end signifies your willingness to be a part of this community, to participate in this experiment, to sustain a venture you believe is valuable, to acknowledge that the concept of giving is made stronger when things come full circle, and to try to see at least one mundane, commonplace economic transaction through a completely different lens.
By sustaining this café, you are helping to shape a future rooted in celebration of abundance rather than fear of scarcity, in trust rather than trade, in shared commitment rather than selfishness, in connectivity rather than isolation, in participation rather than exclusion.
We hope you will see your role in this enterprise not merely as one of consumer, but as a more deeply invested participant.