Her Restaurant Breaks All the Rules, and Thrives

They said it would never work. They were wrong. Denise Cerreta gave up her successful acupuncture practice to open a nonprofit eatery that helps feed the world. Here’s how she broke all the rules and came out ahead

by Jennifer Margulis
Denise Cerreta, founder of One World Everybody Eats
Photograph: Photo by: Reuben Cox

In 2002, with no idea what she was getting into, Cerreta opened a small coffee and sandwich shop in the
building that housed her clinic. She called it Smoochy’s One World 7-10, envisioning it as a healthy alternative to 7-Eleven stores. She hired five people and funneled all the profits from her acupuncture practice into running the shop. Six months into the venture, however, the shop wasn’t attracting enough customers to cover costs.

Realizing that she couldn’t run two businesses at the same time, she folded the clinic, let the coffee shop staff go and ran Smoochy’s herself. She opened an hour earlier than before, hoping to bring in more customers. “I hon­estly wasn’t sure what was coming next. It was like throwing myself down the Grand Canyon,” she says. For the next four months, she struggled, doing all the food preparation, shopping and cleaning. She maxed out her credit cards and could barely pay her rent. Then came the lowest point: Her car was repossessed. Concerned friends told her she was crazy to keep the shop going. Still, Cerreta was positive that food was somehow in her destiny.

Although she isn’t a religious woman in the conventional sense, Cerreta says her faith and prayer allowed her to persevere. One particularly stressful day, when Cerreta had run out of sandwich meat and had no money to buy more, a local street person named Doggers entered the shop and handed her $50. “He said, ‘Denise, I have some money but no place to cook. If I buy you some food, will you make it for me?’ ” Cerreta remembers. She walked with him to the grocery store, and when she explained her predicament, Doggers offered to buy her the roast beef and turkey she needed. “Now he can eat at One World anytime he wants for free,” Cerreta says. “It’s amazing how the answers to your prayers aren’t what you think they’re going to be.”

A few years earlier, Cerreta had learned to trust her intuition and listen to what the universe, or her own subconscious, was trying to tell her. She’d been training in martial arts and was about to take a test for her yellow belt when she had an overwhelming feeling that something would go wrong. She went ahead with the test anyway and ripped a muscle in her groin so badly that her left thigh turned black from bruising. Cerreta thought she’d be bedridden for weeks, but she promised herself that if her leg healed sooner, she’d never again ignore such a strong feeling. The leg healed in 10 days.

That’s why Cerreta paid attention in June 2003 when, about a month after her experience with Doggers, she had what she describes as a Field of Dreams moment: a strong feeling that she needed to let customers pay whatever they wanted. “It was such an unusual phenomenon, and it hasn’t happened to me since,” she says, laughing at how unlikely it sounds.

Cerreta recalls the first customer who came in after her revelation—a dark-eyed woman glowing with good health. “Just price your own food,” Cerreta told her. The woman looked shocked but dropped her money
into a basket on the counter, smiled and left. Cerreta, not checking to see how much the woman had paid, felt a surge of recognition, thinking, oh my gosh, this is my purpose.

The event marked the beginning of Cerreta’s economic turnaround. Operating a coffee shop on a pay-what-you-want basis was so unusual that people started flocking to it. Encouraged, Cerreta decided to expand beyond sandwiches and started offering one dish cooked with fresh, local produce every day. At first, the news about the restaurant spread by word of mouth, and then in September 2003 the Associated Press wrote a news story that started, “Salt Lake City’s One World Café breaks two of the most fundamental rules of the restaurant business: It has no menu and no prices.” The article was picked up by newspapers across the country and gained her both local customers and interested tourists.

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