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FreeDinners,noTakers

Two months after restaurateur Kao Wen-chih began asking his customers to donate meals to the needy, he found the scheme suffering from a surprising lack of interest– no-one seemed to want a free lunch.

In April, Kao had begun a “suspended meals”scheme, whereby customers could donate a free meal that could be claimed by any diner who wanted it. By the end of June, the restaurant had taken payment for a total of 265 donated meals, of which only 65 had been claimed. A former journalist and teacher, 50-year-old Kao was born in Taiwan and came to the mainland in 1999, freelancing as a writer and publisher. In 2012, partnering with a few friends, he opened a restaurant in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi Province, offering simple Taiwanese-style meals.

Good Samaritan Spirit

The concept of a “suspended meals” system was first publicly advocated in China on April 12 this year, by Shaanxi Provincial Public Security Bureau Deputy-Director Chen Li, a popular blogger with more than 10 million followers on Weibo, China’s Twitter equivalent.

Kao was the first to respond to the idea, promising that as of the following day, his store would offer a free-meal donation service, and he himself would kick off the program by offering five free meals for customers in need.

The idea was inspired by the century-old tradition of “suspended coffee” in Naples, Italy, whereby coffee shop customers will pay for an extra cup of coffee or two, to be claimed by those less fortunate.

According to Kao, he had witnessed a similar kind of “mini-charity” in action during his childhood Taiwan. Speaking to our reporter, Kao said that when he was eight years old, while he ate with his mother at a local wonton restaurant, a beggar stopped by and asked the owner for some free food. When the owner refused, Kao’s mother offered to buy a meal for the beggar. She told the owner to serve a free bowl of wontons to anyone who asked for one, and promised to settle the bill every week. The owner went on to offer a discounted price for suspended meal donors.

Now, Kao has followed suit, reducing the price of a meal of stewed meat and rice to 10 yuan (US$1.60) from 11 yuan, to make payment more convenient for donors.

In designing the scheme’s publicity, Kao avoided using vocabulary that might hint at charity, in an effort to protect the pride of meal recipients. He never asks their names, or why they need a free lunch.

Kao said that on one occasion, an ob- noxious man using an expensive Samsung smartphone came to the restaurant to claim a suspended meal, buying himself a soda while eating. When the waiter complained to Kao that the man was not likely in need of a free meal, Kao responded that even if the man had arrived in a Mercedes, he would still be entitled to a free meal as long as he asked for one.

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