A small restaurant in the city of Obihiro, Hokkaido, boasts an eye-catching sign out front that says “Eat here for free.”
It’s not that the restaurant pays for the meal. The other customers do.
Inspired by an Italian movement known as “suspended coffee,” which offers pre-paid drinks for those in need, soba restaurant Yui offers noodles, curry rice dishes and other fare on the menu paid in advance by other customers willing to cover the cost.
A sign shows what food is available free of charge on any one day.
“I’m urging young people, mainly students, to use the service. Roughly 20 to 30 people a month are eating at no charge,” said Tatsuo Honma, the owner of Yui. “I wish there had been such a service when I was a student.”
Honma calls the service gochi meshi, which means a meal treated by someone else. The donors are customers who are offered the option of paying only for their own meal or paying extra, to treat an unknown beneficiary.
Honma opened in March 2014. It kicked off the service that November to promote local products.
Obihiro is known for dairy products, including milk, cheese and butter, but many local farmers also grow organic vegetables and cereals such as buckwheat.
“Being a farmer myself, I wanted to offer an opportunity for young people to eat the vegetables that are grown in their own hometown,” he said. “Since supermarkets are selling cheap food, it’s becoming rare for them to consume local products.”
He said recent media coverage has resulted in a rise in donations, and other restaurants have been asking for advice on starting such a service.
“It used to be the regulars who donated, but now, many tourists are eating here and doing it after reading about us,” he said.
He added: “It’s hard to say that this shopping street is becoming a busy thoroughfare, but at least I can say I was able to contribute a little to promoting local products.”