Café Gratitude, a well-known San Francisco restaurant, opened a location in Santa Cruz this past spring with the mission of making vegan, organic food accessible to everyone. One of their signature dishes, the Grateful Bowl, is available per donation. Photo by Prescott Watson.

The biggest concept that stumped and shocked many business people about Café Gratitude is the free food. Created in the midst of the recession in the mid-2000s, the café’s “Grateful Bowl” is a donation-based program that offers a bowl of brown rice, black beans and kale with tahini garlic dressing to everyone, from the homeless to lower-middle class to students and anyone else who might be under financial strain.

The café offers an option to pay anywhere from a penny to the $7 cost of production, or even above. The money goes to fund the Grateful Bowl program and feed another person.

While the average price for customers is $3, there have been donations that exceed the production cost. Café Gratitude has received donations as high as a $1,000.

“It’s being able to provide the community a chance to let them provide for their own community, too. We wanted to create this so that people can actually see the difference,” Manzo said. “We’re not in the business of making anyone wrong or right. We’re willing to make less money to provide this for the community and in turn, what we’re providing for our customers, we’re providing for the local farmers and the vendors that we’re buying from.”

While the program may seem susceptible to being taken advantage of, Manzo explains Café Gratitude is a “school of transformation,” where customers can change and transcend as individuals. Manzo recalls a regular customer that embodies his idea of transformation.

“We have one homeless guy who comes in almost every day and he might spend a penny on a Grateful Bowl one day, but then he’ll come in the next day and spend $30 on it,” Manzo said. “That’s the transformation we’re looking for.”

When Manzo first proposed starting a restaurant that was 100 percent organic and vegan, focused on making healthy options accessible to customers, people had doubts about its potential to succeed. However, since its original San Francisco opening in 2004, a handful of locations have opened, including a recent addition in downtown Santa Cruz on Aug. 15.

“The more we think about what we’re grateful for, the easier it is to feel the abundance out there. The earth provides everything that we need,” Manzo said. “This kind of food actually fuels this way of being. For asking people to be more healthy and positive, we can feed them food that helps fuel them. If we told you to come in and be happier, be healthier and go out into the world with a positive energy, but we’re feeding you 99-cent cheeseburgers, Coca-Cola and Cheetos, your body would be holding you back.”

Manzo created the café with “old-school” restaurant business in mind, where the focus is not on profits. The restaurant’s sole interest is the community: the café uses only produce from local farms and vendors and prioritizes providing for the community over profits.

Melissa Mango, a waitress at Café Gratitude, said this unusual focus has made working at the restaurant a unique experience.

“It supplies a sense of supporting one’s spirit,” she said. “It’s not just a job where you clock in and clock out. I’ve never worked at a place that is so high in integrity and trust.”

For Manzo, the Grateful Bowl reflects one of the restaurant’s very basic philosophies, rooted in the café’s origins.

“We weren’t interested in just opening up another restaurant,” Manzo said. “In the ‘80s when money started to become a conversation, we watched restaurants get away from what they’re providing for the community to how they can make the most money possible. So for my family, the old-school version for a restaurant is providing.”