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Imagine walking into an upscale Indian restaurant, its menu filled with delectable-sounding choices like Malabar avocado and coconut soup (made with plain yogurt, cumin, and lemon juice and served with fresh cilantro chutney and whole wheat chapatis) and drinks like the Saffron Sandalwood Fizz (lime juice and pure water, cooled overnight by the light of the moon). You sit down with friends and enjoy a delicious, ayurvedic vegetarian meal, served with a smile. Then you finish, feeling satisfied, and signal for the bill -- but none comes. This scenario is not merely a fantasy: At Annalakshmi, you decide what to order andhow much to pay.
Inspired by Swami Shantanand -- a Hindu monk from Rishikesh, India, who came to Southeast Asia in the early 1970s -- the small international restaurant chain operates with an uncommon trust in humanity: that people will pay what is fair because we are inherently good and because it is in our own best karmic interests to give. Although its concept may sound too idealistic to stand a chance, Annalakshmi has been in business for 19 years, and has thriving outposts in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and India. And now it's geared up to open its first eatery in the United States -- in an as-yet-undetermined spot in San Francisco.
Behind the scenes is a 35-year-old Marina District woman named Lalitha Vaidyanathan, who, late last year, quit her job as a co-founder and vice president at SquareTrade, a company that facilitates fair online sales, to pursue the restaurant's local development full time. "I always felt like Annalakshmi has so much to offer people beyond just food," she explains. "It really provides a whole new way of seeing the world and its possibilities. I felt that San Francisco would be a perfect place to open one. Why not? I figure if it's meant to happen it will. I have complete trust in whatever's meant to be."
One of the reasons Annalakshmi -- named after the Hindu concept of abundance -- has succeeded is because it is run mostly by volunteers, called "Annalakshmis." "People naturally want to volunteer because it allows them to tap into something divine within themselves," says Vaidyanathan. "The human heart and its inherent generosity is the secret force behind Annalakshmi. There is nothing wrong with making money, but it's also nice to give in a way that does not seek returns."
Annalakshmi is actually part of a larger organization called the Temple of Fine Arts International, and is one of its main sources of revenue. TFA, also inspired by Swami Shantanand, exists to provide a variety of services such as pay-what-you-can dance and music courses, free medical clinics, and art galleries and handicrafts that direct proceeds to the artisans, bypassing any middlemen. TFA's most recent event was an Indian cultural performance at New York's Lincoln Center, put on without admission tickets.
So how does the restaurant do it? On a trip through Singapore with a friend recently, we stopped by to see for ourselves.
The Singapore outpost is ornate and beautiful, surrounded by exquisite handicrafts. Nearby are TFA's gallery, medical clinic, and performing arts center. The eatery also has several smaller to-go outlets as well as a thriving catering business delivering lunches to businesses.
Ganesh Krishnan, its operations manager, says, "In any business, the goal is to have satisfied customers. That is our goal as well. When you have satisfied customers, they will return. That is the reason Annalakshmi is always full. Some people will pay less and some will pay more. The important thing is that they pay what they feel is right for them. In the end, it all balances out."
When asked what happens if people take advantage of the system, Krishnan seems to imply that it's not much of an issue. One customer, he says, came in and paid only a dime, to test the system. The next night he came in and paid only a dime again. The third night, the same. When he realized that there was no gimmick, he became a regular customer and increased his payments. For Krishnan, personal growth is part of the whole equation.
Another regular customer, who gives her name as Padmeeni, explains why she dines here instead of somewhere else: "I like to eat at Annalakshmi because the food is excellent and I feel good about where my money is going, through the various causes they support." How much does she pay? The going rate, she says, if not a little more; it gives her a clear conscience.
After investigating Annalakshmi for a little while, we decided to volunteer -- cutting vegetables -- and it quickly became apparent that running a restaurant is an enormous undertaking for a largely unpaid crew. Still, when the eatery comes to San Francisco, we'll be back in the kitchen, supporting a worldview built on abundance. (John Silliphant)
We're sipping Almond Joy-spiked cappuccino in a sea of electric green carpet, knowing that for the 7-Eleven groupie, there is no greater high than this. It surpasses our daily visits to scope out new pastries. It beats sweet-talking the cashier into giving us double stamps on our coffee cards. It even one-ups the world premiere of the wrap sandwich line. Because right now, we are hanging on the every word of a man wearing a 7-Eleven tie.