Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pay what you want for your dinner

Posted By on Thu, Apr 9, 2009 at 5:12 PM

resized_unity_inn_thumb_200x143.jpg
Charles Ferruzza Collection
Original Unity Vegetarian Inn, 913 Tracy Avenue

Restaurateurs are trying all kinds of gimmicks to get penny-pinching patrons back into the restaurants.

Last month, several news sources reported on restaurants that gave customers the right to "pay whatever they wanted for their dinner." It's an interesting concept (especially since most customers have always paid whatever they wanted when it comes to tipping servers) and a restaurant in Arlington, Texas is trying it out. So is this bistro in Sydney, Australia.

But the idea was done before in Kansas City, over a century ago. In his new book about the history of Lee Summit's Unity Village, Unity Village (Arcadia Publishing, $21.99), Tom Taylor tells the tale of the first vegetarian restaurant in Kansas City, Unity Inn, first opened, in 1906, in a frame house at 913 Tracy Avenue.

"Patrons paid according to what they felt the meal was worth," wrote Taylor. "Workers handed out cards that read, 'All the expenses of this house are met by the freewill offering of its guests. Freely you have received, freely give.' "

Taylor told me that this "freewill" concept didn't last too long. Too many customers weren't "freely giving" for those meals of nut-loaf, home-baked breads and fresh vegetables. The staff at the Unity Inn started charging set prices for meals. Customers didn't seem to mind. The Unity Inn was successful enough to move into a beautiful brand-new building at the corner of Ninth and Tracy (it's still there, now used as an antique shop) in 1924 and stayed there until 1951.

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