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

Denise Cerreta still remembers how her mouth watered when, as a child of eight, she gazed longingly at heaps of plump strawberries at a farmers’ market in Atlanta. She asked her dad if she could have some, but he said no, they were too expensive. As the family returned to its car, a young man bounded up to her father, holding out a pint of the sweet-scented fruit. “Sir, I hope you don’t mind,” he said, “I bought these for your daughter.”

That stranger’s impulsive act of kindness made a lasting impression on Cerreta. Forty years later, at age 47, she’s on a similar mission. As founder of One World Everybody Eats, a pay-what-you-want restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah, Cerreta is determined to change the way restaurants do business and to bring delicious, healthful food to everyone, even those who can’t pay. Although skeptics told her that a restaurant based on customer donations could never survive (“These are liberals playing games with the reality known as life,” said Rush Limbaugh of the eatery), the enterprise is debt-free and will have its sixth anniversary in June.

Located in a converted two-story red brick building not far from the University of Utah, One World Everybody Eats serves organic, freshly prepared dishes, buffet style, in four cozy dining areas decorated with bright hangings and hand-carved statues from India. The menu changes every day and includes options that impress even the most sophisticated eaters. A hand-lettered notice asks customers to “donate a fair, respectable amount” similar to what they’d pay in other restaurants. Anyone too strapped to make even the most minimal payment can volunteer to wash dishes, cut vegetables, clean up or garden (one hour = one meal), and rice and dal are always free. Since the recession took hold, the number of customers earning meals through volunteering has doubled, but the average donation has remained at a steady $8 to $10 per meal, and the 60-seat eatery is attracting as many paying diners as in the past.

Here, tourists, judges, businessmen and even the mayor of Salt Lake City, Ralph Becker, dine alongside single mothers, laborers, college students and street people. Cerreta says she’s seen lasting friendships form as strangers sit down together at tables seating two to six people. When they go to the buffet counter to be served, there’s only one rule: Don’t ask for more than you can eat. Food is never wasted, because every scrap is either consumed or composted. (Meat bones are thrown in the trash only after being boiled for soup.) That’s unheard of at conventional restaurants, where diners’ leftovers are thrown away.

“We have three Dumpsters outside our restaurant,” says a Salt Lake City restaurateur who manages a branch of a $28 million seafood chain (and who asked to remain anonymous). “After weekends, they are filled to the brim with garbage, at least half of which is food.” At One World Everybody Eats, on the other hand, by the end of an average night, there’s a quarter of a 10-gallon can of garbage and one or two five-gallon buckets of food scraps, which are composted at a nearby community garden that also serves as a site for educational programs. Cerreta says it’s the savings from this lack of waste that enables the restaurant to be self-sustaining.

A curvy woman with luminous hazel eyes and a broad smile, Cerreta had zero experience running a restaurant when she jumped into the food business. She’d moved to Salt Lake City to open an acupuncture clinic in 1997,
after studying acupuncture and herbal remedies at the International Institute of Chinese Medicine, in Santa Fe. The clinic was very successful: She saw from 20 to 25 clients a day and made good money. But, at 41, after running the business for five years, she “hit a spiritual glass ceiling,” she says. She’d come to believe that most of her patients were lonely rather than ill. “Loneliness is an undiagnosed disease in this country, and I wanted to change that,” she says. A café where customers could socialize seemed like a worthwhile enterprise.

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