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In Tough Times, A Cafe Runs on Faith

  • With her daughter Laura, 2, on her hip, Mechelle Thomas talks with customers as another of her daughters, Jenna Hurlburt, 15, takes orders in the Splatter Bakery and Cafe in Chelsea. The family business opened in August 2012 and instituted a “human faith” pricing system shortly after Easter this year that encourages customers to pay as much as they can afford or what they feel their food is worth based on a suggested price. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    With her daughter Laura, 2, on her hip, Mechelle Thomas talks with customers as another of her daughters, Jenna Hurlburt, 15, takes orders in the Splatter Bakery and Cafe in Chelsea. The family business opened in August 2012 and instituted a “human faith” pricing system shortly after Easter this year that encourages customers to pay as much as they can afford or what they feel their food is worth based on a suggested price. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Baked goods are on the counter at the Splatter Cafe and Bakery in Chelsea. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Baked goods are on the counter at the Splatter Cafe and Bakery in Chelsea. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jenna Hurlburt plays with promissory notes next to the cash jar on the counter of the Splatter Bakery and Cafe in Chelsea. If customers cannot pay full price, they are encouraged to sign a note promising to perform a community service. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jenna Hurlburt plays with promissory notes next to the cash jar on the counter of the Splatter Bakery and Cafe in Chelsea. If customers cannot pay full price, they are encouraged to sign a note promising to perform a community service. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jenna Hurlburt walks Maudi Ansaldi of Chelsea across the green to the Splatter Cafe and Bakery in Chelsea on Friday. The family-owned business allows customers who cannot pay full price for their food to sign promissory notes to do community service instead. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Jenna Hurlburt walks Maudi Ansaldi of Chelsea across the green to the Splatter Cafe and Bakery in Chelsea on Friday. The family-owned business allows customers who cannot pay full price for their food to sign promissory notes to do community service instead. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • With her daughter Laura, 2, on her hip, Mechelle Thomas talks with customers as another of her daughters, Jenna Hurlburt, 15, takes orders in the Splatter Bakery and Cafe in Chelsea. The family business opened in August 2012 and instituted a “human faith” pricing system shortly after Easter this year that encourages customers to pay as much as they can afford or what they feel their food is worth based on a suggested price. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Baked goods are on the counter at the Splatter Cafe and Bakery in Chelsea. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Jenna Hurlburt plays with promissory notes next to the cash jar on the counter of the Splatter Bakery and Cafe in Chelsea. If customers cannot pay full price, they are encouraged to sign a note promising to perform a community service. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Jenna Hurlburt walks Maudi Ansaldi of Chelsea across the green to the Splatter Cafe and Bakery in Chelsea on Friday. The family-owned business allows customers who cannot pay full price for their food to sign promissory notes to do community service instead. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

The employees at The Splatter Cafe and Bakery in Chelsea are used to hearing from customers who say the eatery’s prices are too modest. It’s that rare restaurant where one can purchase a cheeseburger for $3.50. One woman was appalled that the cafe charged only $5 for a pecan pie, and insisted on giving more.

But from their perch on the town common, the employees behind the counter have a broad view of the economic fortunes and woes of their neighbors. The people who pass through to do business at the Orange County Courthouse may think nothing of spending a premium price for a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich, yet for someone between jobs, or a senior on a fixed income, $6 may be too much.

Setting prices was a source of consternation for owner Mechelle Thomas, who opened the restaurant with just a handful of tables in August. “I hate trying to tell people how much they should pay when I know what the economy is like,” she said.

When The Splatter introduced a pay-what-you-can system at the beginning of April, the owners were thinking of their neighbors struggling to make ends meet. Under this system, you won’t find a cash register behind the counter, or a stone-faced cashier staring down a patron who’s scrounging through a wallet to pay for lunch. While there are prices listed next to each item on The Splatter’s menu, these are suggested donations. People can pay what they have. If they come up short, they can pay a lesser amount, or eat for free, and pledge to “pay it forward” by performing odd jobs in the community.

“Some days, they just can’t afford it,” said 22-year-old Mindy Hurlburt, Thomas’ daughter. “But we know they’ll be back and more than willing to compensate for it next time.” By the same token, those patrons who feel the cafe’s prices are too low can pay what they feel their meal is worth. “People can pay 50 cents if they want to. They can pay $10 if they want to.”

Last Wednesday afternoon, the pay-what-you-can policy had taken hold at The Splatter, though some customers were still getting the hang of the new way of doing business. A woman from Corinth purchased a cream puff and a cinnamon roll, and asked Jason Hurlburt what she owed him.

“It’s up to you,” he told her, adding that the restaurant used to charge a dollar for the cream puffs and $1.50 for the cinnamon rolls. The woman left $6.

In the restaurant industry, pay-what-you-can has drawn some interest in recent years. The Panera Bread chain operates several “Panera Cares” cafes around the country, where suggested prices are given, and patrons can pay that, or a higher or lower price. According to the Panera Cares website, it’s estimated that 60 percent of customers pay the suggested price, while 20 percent donate more and 20 percent pay less.

When implementing pay-what-you-can at The Splatter, Thomas and Mindy Hurlburt researched enterprises that had adopted the model. They found that customers were often flummoxed if no prices were listed. “People are worried about being fair,” Hurlburt observed. As a result, The Splatter lists suggested prices, so customers “don’t have to sit there and go, I have no idea what it takes to make that.”

To reduce the intimidation factor for customers who can’t afford a full-price meal, the cash register at The Splatter was removed. The register isn’t decommissioned, but it’s now located in the back of the restaurant, and used solely for making change. Near its former spot on the counter is a glass jar, filled with slips of paper bearing promises to rake leaves, mow lawns, or donate time where it is needed (there’s a list nearby with notices of volunteer jobs around town).

Hurlburt has observed that The Splatter’s regular customers are most apt to pay more than the asking price, while those who are just stopping by usually pay the suggested amount. But it’s not as if they’re keeping track of who can pay and who cannot. “Just because you can’t pay full price for something doesn’t make you a bad person,” Hurlburt said.

Thomas isn’t sure whether the pay-what-you-can system will allow her family to meet the bottom line. At the same time, she has an optimistic outlook on even the worst-case scenario. “If we end up broke and having to close, maybe we’ll at least end up doing some good in the community,” she said.

“The whole system is really based on belief in people in general,” she continued. “Is somebody going to walk in and pay a dollar for a $15 meal, when you know they can do better? Maybe.” Even if that were the case, Thomas said she believes that contribution could be justified — say, if the customer were an electrician who donated work to someone who could not afford it.

“I feel that if you have the ability to give back to your community and do more, then do it,” she said. “It’s your obligation as a human being, to do more for other people.”

Stopping in for some chocolate cake bites last Wednesday, Lynne Hadley of Tunbridge said she’s among the customers who have urged the owners to raise prices. She gladly paid $1 each for the treats that normally go for 50 cents.

She thinks that the pay-what-you-can model will pay off for the cafe. “You bet,” Hadley said. “You kidding me? Generosity breeds generosity.”

Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at kbryan@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.