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Cafe counts on karma to keep the food coming

In some ways, Karma Cafe runs like any number of other eateries around Albuquerque.

Staff members take your breakfast and lunch orders.

They make your food – say French toast or a grilled ham and cheese sandwich – on commercial-grade equipment.

They bring it out to your table.

But the standard restaurant routine ends there.

None of them will bring you a check. In fact, no one would know how to create one. That’s because nothing on the menu has a price.

Karma Cafe operates on a “pay what you feel” model, allowing customers to determine the value of the experience. Established as a nonprofit, Karma Cafe uses the tagline “Where Everyone Eats,” and founder and President Wade McCullough means it. Diners can technically leave without spending a dime, and perhaps some have. But others always seem to make up the difference.

“Some people are extremely generous and it all evens out,” says Shannon Sweet, cafe manager.

Karma Cafe baker Gigi McCullar works in the kitchen at the new Albuquerque restaurant. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

Karma Cafe baker Gigi McCullar works in the kitchen at the new Albuquerque restaurant. (Greg Sorber/Journal)

McCullough was traveling abroad when he encountered a similar establishment in Australia. He volunteered to wash dishes and bus tables there, and eventually worked his way into food preparation. When he returned to Albuquerque, his hometown, he wanted to replicate it. His attempt to crowdfund a restaurant failed to meet its target, but he remained undeterred. With the help of friends Skylar Petty and Gigi McCullar, Food Karma began as a food stand at the Downtown Growers’ Market. It has since completed three full market seasons.

McCullough says the time had come to leave his regular job with local restaurateur Daniel Boardman (Tia B’s La Waffleria, El Cotorro) and funnel all his energy into Karma Cafe. The restaurant opened last month along San Pedro in Albuquerque’s Mile-Hi District.

The menu includes Growers’ Market staples like the breakfast burrito and artisan breakfast sandwich (scrambled eggs, jack cheese and green chile on grilled sourdough), but will otherwise change regularly. Last week’s options included huevos rancheros, squash soup, a mixed green salad and a cheesy pasta dish.

After eating, customers who want to contribute can drop money into a donation box or make some kind of payment via credit card. So far, McCullough says, the cafe has operated above the “break even” point and the staff – McCullough included – who worked the first few weeks in a volunteer capacity could start getting paid this month.

“I think most people do pay what you would consider a fair price, and even the people who are struggling or maybe need some help or might be in a rough place, they still want to contribute what they can,” says Sweet, noting that during a Growers’ Market appearance, a customer who was homeless offered to give the only dollar he had.

While the model could clearly benefit those who could not otherwise afford a meal, McCullough says it is meant for customers of all means. Fans who can have already made other key donations – buying salt and pepper shakers, for example, or paper towels. One brought a 20-pound bag of potatoes. Another customer, a retired teacher, visiting for lunch last week paid $20 and offered to buy the restaurant a new microwave. He said the cafe was “like an outpost of heaven or another planet.”

“Some people hear about what we’re doing and say ‘Oh, it’s a soup kitchen’ and my response is, ‘No, it’s not a soup kitchen,'” says McCullough, noting that the food, venue and concept resonate with people from all walks of life and circumstances. “It’s really for everyone indiscriminately. It appeals to everyone.”

Karma Cafe is located at 1617 San Pedro NE, near Constitution. It is open 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It is closed Monday.

Gifts of all kinds

Cousins Thomas Edenfield III, left, and David Edwards recently opened 12th Street Emporium at 12th and Mountain NW. (Jessica Dyer/Journal)

Cousins Thomas Edenfield III, left, and David Edwards recently opened 12th Street Emporium at 12th and Mountain NW. (Jessica Dyer/Journal)

Thomas Edenfield III thought he was going to help stock the world’s man caves.

Instead, he and cousin/business partner David Edwards are filling kitchen drawers, toy boxes and soap dishes. And, OK, probably still a few man caves.

The inventory at the duo’s new Albuquerque gift shop, 12th Street Emporium, veers from 50-cents-a-pop stickers to Japanese cast-iron cookware and high-end teak cutting boards. It boasts Star Wars mugs and novelty lunch boxes, but also stationery, games and locally made soap.

“We keep talking about quality, and intrinsic value and fun,” Edenfield says of what guides their buying. “… Basically, if we think it’s cool, it works, and if we don’t, then we’re not going to do it.”

Edenfield, a furniture designer and artist, started talking earlier this year about starting a website to sell “neat things that you wouldn’t normally find” elsewhere, primarily targeting men who wanted interesting-but-useful stuff.

The idea quickly evolved. Edwards, who owns New Mexico Tea Co. and its building, had a spare suite available to house a brick-and-mortar store. And the duo – each of whom attended the Savannah College of Art and Design – also realized that what they liked was not specific to men.

“Women find things cool and men find things cool, and a lot of times they’re the same things,” Edwards says.

The new 12th Street Emporium gift shop carries a variety of items, including kitchenwares, stationery, toys, and bath and body products. (Jessica Dyer/Journal)

The new 12th Street Emporium gift shop carries a variety of items, including kitchenwares, stationery, toys, and bath and body products. (Jessica Dyer/Journal)

The cousins have stocked the 500-square-foot space with items from about 25-30 different vendors. The eclectic assortment includes miniature toy cars powered by sunlight, key chains made in Kenya, stainless steel cheese knives, and even some of Edenfield’s furniture and paintings.

Edwards likens it to a “museum gift shop without the museum attached.”

12th Street Emporium is located at 1131 Mountain NW, at the Mountain/12th Street intersection. It is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It is closed Mondays.

Speaking of gifts …

Want to give a little dose of New Mexico this holiday season?

The State Tourism Department has created an online resource for shoppers looking local. The New Mexico True Certified Holiday Gift Guide showcases present-worthy products made entirely in New Mexico.

About 50 vendors are represented, including breweries, farmers and jewelry-makers.

Items include red and green chile brittle from Brenda’s Perfect Brittle ($8.99 for 8 ounces), ChipChap natural lip balm ($18 per jar) and a JMohr Studio dish towel featuring a roadrunner and Zia symbol design ($12).

Shoppers can access the online gift guide at newmexico.org.

“We know that people want to shop locally, but perceive that it is easier to do their holiday shopping online,” Tourism Secretary Rebecca Latham says in a news release. “This is an easy solution that benefits our New Mexico businesses and keeps those precious dollars close to home.”

If you have retail or restaurant news to share, contact me at jdyer@abqjournal.com or 823-3864. For more on Albuquerque shopping and dining news, visit my blog at abqjournal.com or follow @abqdyer on Twitter.

 

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