Since the initial Seattle Times article, we have gotten many radio and TV interviews, as well as coverage in the written press and on the web. Some press coverage reached the national level. I did over a dozen TV interviews and radio shows in the 3 days following the article. To offload myself a bit, I’ve summarized some of my talking points below.
We are not a Charity
Terra Bite is a cafe/deli with a voluntary payment system. We don’t ask for charity. We believe we have better coffee and much better food than the cafe chains. All we ask is that those who can pay what they would elsewhere.
It’s a convenience for both sides: regular customers can choose to pay once a week for their daily coffee; we get to eliminate all the cash handling and get a highly efficient operation that allows us to benefit the public, without asking for charity.
We also offer free wifi, free console games, and a better reading selection. There is really no reason to go to the chains: patrons can do exactly what they do at the chains, get better coffee and food, with a better experience — and they can feel like they have done something good, which they have.
We are not Saints
We are in no way as exemplary and selfless as the food charities, who operate in poor areas and seek out the needy. Terra Bite is non-charity, and is beginning at the upper demographics. We exclude those who ruin the experience for others. Our goal is to create an inclusive, highly efficient experience that can then spread through society. We operate only in areas where we can break even, and we believe that those areas are increasing rapidly.
We are not Activists
We have no axe to grind with mainstream society. Our society has produced the conditions of affluence and good will that allow us to exist in many areas. We are not trying to educate anyone.
The American public doesn’t give itself credit for how honest it is.
Terra Bite is not only an experiment into the level of public honesty, it is also a visible demonstration of that high level of honesty. I think that has some secondary benefits. In my life, there have been times when I’ve felt like being good and honest, and other times when I’ve felt cynical. When I have felt cynical, it was usually because I felt that I was surrounded by corruption. On the other hand, when I feel that people around me are good, I feel more like being good. Well, by existing, Terra Bite demonstrates to the public that they are surrounded by a high level of honesty. I believe that helps reduce the general level of cynicism, even for those that never visit Terra Bite.
The cafe chains base their business on the popularity of coffee. We do also; but we also base it on people’s notion of wanting to be good. I believe that this personal notion of “I am a good person” is quite universal; even people who we don’t regard as good — someone in prison, say — is often there not because they don’t have an ethical system, but because they acted out too strongly on their ethical system. So I believe we’re on solid ground basing a business on that.
Hunger is a Solved Problem
If I thought there were starving people on the other side of town, I might feel compelled to immediately go help feed them. But that’s not the case. Hunger in America is by and large a solved problem, symptomatic of mental illness or child neglect. That applies to most of the world, in fact — although malnutrition is still widespread, even the UN acknowledges that obesity is now a bigger problem than actual hunger. Poverty is in rapid decline worldwide.
So Terra Bite doesn’t imagine some big hunger problem. Instead, we are creating a highly efficient process and an enjoyable new trust-based experience for the mainstream. Our first priority is to maintain an upscale image and keep our mainstream clientele, because they fund everything. By leveraging the efficiencies in our trust-based process, we can then also benefit those who can’t pay, without asking for charity.
Terra Bite only attempts to operate in demographics with enough affluence and honesty to sustain itself; we believe that those neighborhoods are increasing rapidly.
Also, we remove the stigma associated with receiving free food. It takes a lot for someone to go stand in line behind a church or at a soup kitchen. Terra Bite offers to feed these people along with the mainstream, with no stigma, with continuous availability, and with no attached religious or political message.
With regards to needy people, we are not just talking about the homeless; we are also talking about working people who may be in debt, or who may not be making rent this month. I think they should have access to food and a hot drink, with no stigma; and that’s too fundamental to have some religious or political message attached to it.
Some free-food organizations are on the fringe politically. Though I admire what they do, I’m not sure that someone who is struggling financially benefits from exposure to a fringe philosophy. I think people who are struggling need to be brought into the mainstream — sitting and eating with the mainstream is a good start. It is not our right to indoctrinate people with our personal views just because we are feeding them.
The voluntary payment system is in a sense an internet age concept. Often on the internet, we trust a group of strangers who we would not trust individually. For example, we may buy from an EBay seller because 99% of his references were good, even though we don’t have faith in any single one of those references. Likewise, Terra Bite’s model is based on aggregate trust. We can’t predict whether any single customer will do the right thing; but in the aggregate, the behavior is fairly predictable. By letting go of that small remainder, we gain this huge simplification and efficiency in our process: namely, no cash handling and reduced staff.
Is it Working?
Everyone always asks if it’s working. Although we don’t track by customer, we do track how many we serve, what we give out, and how much we take in. The result is that almost everyone pays, at least among the adults. A reporter sat in the store one day to watch people, and saw the same thing.
On average, we take in less per person than the chains would. But we are also much more efficient than the chains. So we just need a high volume of people every day. Since the publicity, we’ve gotten to the break-even point. Our entire goal is just to break even, and we’ll probably never do much more than that.
So the answer is that yes, it is working, but only through the free publicity we get and because we don’t have to support a big corporate structure.
Another point is that Terra Bite is highly repeatable, at least in the qualifying demographics. It’s very simple to run a Terra Bite, because there is no cash handling and the entire store can be run by a single barista. So after working out the kinks, we intend to open a Terra Bite whereever we can. We will open one right next to a cafe chain store, because we genuinely offer something better. We are already negotiating for our second space.