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A church-sponsored restaurant is attempting to change its community by using an unusual pay system many are calling a "Robin Hood model." At A Better World Café, housed in the Reformed Church of Highland Park, N.J., visitors can eat as much as they want and pay whatever they can. So far, the unique business model isn't just successfully impacting the church's neighborhood, it's furthering an innovative movement among restaurants.

The café's premise is to allow those who can afford more to subsidize those who can't, while also remaining environmentally friendly. The nonprofit, which attracts between 50 to 125 customers each day, uses mostly locally grown produce, composts leftover food and stays away from plastics or Styrofoam.

"It's about how we're going to need to change our systems if we're going to survive as a planet," said Tina Weishaus, a board member of the Who is My Neighbor? group at the Reformed Church, which co-owns the café with Elijah's Promise, a New Brunswick soup kitchen and culinary school.

According to Denise Cerreta, who founded a similar eating establishment in downtown Salt Lake City in 2003, the idea behind A Better World Café is catching on around the country. Besides the five existing "Robin Hood" restaurants, she says more than 50 groups on the East Coast have approached her about launching similar ventures, and she currently travels full-time teaching people how to start their own socially conscious eateries.

At the Highland Park location, customers find a new menu each day with a dozen items and only suggested prices. In addition, one "complimentary community entrée" is always offered for free. Those who want to eat more than the free offering but are unable to pay can volunteer at the café for an hour to receive a bigger meal.

"It's an idea whose time has come," said one director. [, 11/18/09]

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