Free Soup

I just had (2007/Dec/27, c. 6am) a distinctly weird dream. One of my friends is into really nice food and can afford to go to eccentric and expensive restaurants. He and I were in one such, a Japanese restaurant with minimal decor – plain wood tables, floors, chairs; the front desk was barely more than a lectern. My friend was talking to the guy at the front desk and I noticed a little booklet on a table, so sat down to look at what I supposed must be a menu; but, in fact, it was a book of poetry (of the sort that doesn't make any evident sense) with a few pages at the front containing what I took to be cryptic notes from some of the customers to themselves.

Rather to my surprise, a simple dish consisting almost entirely of rice was brought to me. I explained that I hadn't ordered anything. The waiter made clear that every customer gets this. I explained that my friend (who appeared to have wrapped up his conversation with the guy on the front desk) and I had only come in to make enquiries, we weren't eating – indeed, we were just leaving. The waiter wasn't very happy about that, but I was adamant I wasn't here to eat, hadn't ordered and wasn't going to accept liability for any bill I hadn't knowingly incurred. They (the waiter had now been joined by some colleagues) weren't too happy about that, but weren't arguing, just ushering me off the premises politely. On the way out I enquired, partly out of curiosity, partly because I'd have been willing to pay a few pounds, since I could afford it, just to be polite back and because I was impressed at the simple fact that they do bring (seemingly) a simple starter by default – with a little more care to know the recipient really wants it, it'd be a cool thing to do. However, the price was over £400, which I would consider a high price for a full meal at a very fancy restaurant, so I was glad I'd phrased my enquiry in terms of curiosity, keeping the thought of paying to myself. I walked off into Cambridge's rain in search of my bike, having lost the friend I'd come in with.

The funny thing is that it really would be a cool thing to do in a restaurant: give each patron something (more than just bread) to be getting on with, at about the point where you take their order, simply as a matter of course.

There are of course problems, not least that there's a cost to the restaurant in providing it, yet no patron consent to any particular price has been given before it comes. It may even be viable to simply make it a gift – as long as the restaurant's ethos can fit comfortably with letting every beggar, down-and-out or other random stranger (as long as they're not obnoxiously drunk, or otherwise a public order nuisance) come in, sit down, eat a bowl of soup and head on out. Alternatively, it could be very cheap – zero profit margin – and free to anyone who has anything more off the menu, as long as this is made abundantly clear at the point where the waiter brings it and takes orders; this would work particularly well if you always leave menus on the tables when making them ready for customers, so that the customers can have read this already while looking at the menu (which needn't state that you waive the charge on any other order).

The next problem is what to provide as this minimal starter. It should be tasty and wholesome; satisfying enough to whet the appetite, yet not substantial enough to fill one up. Yet it would need to be something everyone can eat – or, at least, everyone that would willingly come into the restaurant, given its externally-presented ethos. One might make exceptions: in the unlikely event of a fruitarian walking into the restaurant (this is only likely to happen as I'm here with my friends, I shalln't be eating), you'd better give them a piece of fruit instead; so, indeed, simply make it easy for any patron to request a piece of fruit instead of the normal thing. But if you want to cater to vedic (no whole thing, e.g. onion, dies) and vegan (no produce of animal exploitation) as well as the more widely catered to vegetarian (no animal parts used in the cooking), your choices are rather limited. I suspect a simple vegetable broth – based on vegetable stock, of course – would be viable (and cheap).

It also has to be practical to serve the starter to everyone. For a soup, you don't want to do this by carrying large numbers of full soup bowls around; but it'd be practical to have the waiter come with empty bowls and an urn of soup, plop the urn on the table, explain what the deal with the soup is and hand round bowls, filling each in the process of handing it out – then take everyone's orders. A pocket in the waiter's apron should suffice to hold a few pieces of fresh fruit (only be sure each waiter always checks it's in good order before going out to a table – it'll be all too easy to forget, if it's seldom asked for) for those who opt for it.

Getting a restaurant started, with such a deal, would depend on having enough initial capital to endure making no profit (or even a loss) on the loss leader (free soup, or whatever simple introductory dish you chose) while everyone gets used to what else is on your menu – which had better be good, so that those who try it tell their friends and you soon have a solid base of customers who're there to pay for the serious food. But then, getting a restaurant started depends on having enough initial capital to endure the sunk costs (rent, wages, raw materials that won't keep) while you wait for enough patrons to discover you – and giving away Free Soup is good publicity.

Naturally, the real success of such a restaurant would depend on the quality of the food it sells at a profit, and the quantity of it sold. A place selling itself as fancy might ensure that everyone knows it's expensive even to come in and sit down, then serve a bowl of tasty soup-du-jour as a pleasantry. However, I find more appeal in the friendly accessible case, which really does routinely feed soup to the homeless and the hungry, while offering a full range of good wholesome food. If the steaks are rather dear, the few customers who chose them subsidise the rest.

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