Inspired by Swami Shantanand -- a Hindu monk from Rishikesh, India, who came to Southeast Asia in the early 1970s -- the small international restaurant chain operates with an uncommon trust in humanity: that people will pay what is fair because we are inherently good and because it is in our own best karmic interests to give. Although its concept may sound too idealistic to stand a chance, Annalakshmi has been in business for 19 years, and has thriving outposts in Singapore, Malaysia, Australia, and India. And now it's geared up to open its first eatery in the United States -- in an as-yet-undetermined spot in San Francisco.
Behind the scenes is a 35-year-old Marina District woman named Lalitha Vaidyanathan, who, late last year, quit her job as a co-founder and vice president at SquareTrade, a company that facilitates fair online sales, to pursue the restaurant's local development full time. "I always felt like Annalakshmi has so much to offer people beyond just food," she explains. "It really provides a whole new way of seeing the world and its possibilities. I felt that San Francisco would be a perfect place to open one. Why not? I figure if it's meant to happen it will. I have complete trust in whatever's meant to be."
One of the reasons Annalakshmi -- named after the Hindu concept of abundance -- has succeeded is because it is run mostly by volunteers, called "Annalakshmis." "People naturally want to volunteer because it allows them to tap into something divine within themselves," says Vaidyanathan. "The human heart and its inherent generosity is the secret force behind Annalakshmi. There is nothing wrong with making money, but it's also nice to give in a way that does not seek returns."
Annalakshmi is actually part of a larger organization called the Temple of Fine Arts International, and is one of its main sources of revenue. TFA, also inspired by Swami Shantanand, exists to provide a variety of services such as pay-what-you-can dance and music courses, free medical clinics, and art galleries and handicrafts that direct proceeds to the artisans, bypassing any middlemen. TFA's most recent event was an Indian cultural performance at New York's Lincoln Center, put on without admission tickets.
So how does the restaurant do it? On a trip through Singapore with a friend recently, we stopped by to see for ourselves.
The Singapore outpost is ornate and beautiful, surrounded by exquisite handicrafts. Nearby are TFA's gallery, medical clinic, and performing arts center. The eatery also has several smaller to-go outlets as well as a thriving catering business delivering lunches to businesses.
Ganesh Krishnan, its operations manager, says, "In any business, the goal is to have satisfied customers. That is our goal as well. When you have satisfied customers, they will return. That is the reason Annalakshmi is always full. Some people will pay less and some will pay more. The important thing is that they pay what they feel is right for them. In the end, it all balances out."
When asked what happens if people take advantage of the system, Krishnan seems to imply that it's not much of an issue. One customer, he says, came in and paid only a dime, to test the system. The next night he came in and paid only a dime again. The third night, the same. When he realized that there was no gimmick, he became a regular customer and increased his payments. For Krishnan, personal growth is part of the whole equation.
Another regular customer, who gives her name as Padmeeni, explains why she dines here instead of somewhere else: "I like to eat at Annalakshmi because the food is excellent and I feel good about where my money is going, through the various causes they support." How much does she pay? The going rate, she says, if not a little more; it gives her a clear conscience.
After investigating Annalakshmi for a little while, we decided to volunteer -- cutting vegetables -- and it quickly became apparent that running a restaurant is an enormous undertaking for a largely unpaid crew. Still, when the eatery comes to San Francisco, we'll be back in the kitchen, supporting a worldview built on abundance. (John Silliphant)
We're sipping Almond Joy-spiked cappuccino in a sea of electric green carpet, knowing that for the 7-Eleven groupie, there is no greater high than this. It surpasses our daily visits to scope out new pastries. It beats sweet-talking the cashier into giving us double stamps on our coffee cards. It even one-ups the world premiere of the wrap sandwich line. Because right now, we are hanging on the every word of a man wearing a 7-Eleven tie.
"At some point," proclaims 7-Eleven CEO Jim Keyes, "we stopped thinking of ourselves as food stores and started thinking of ourselves as beef jerky stores." The crowd of hundreds roars until Keyes spots a beef-jerky magnate lurking in the rear. "OK, so beef jerky is a food."
Damn right it is, nod the throngs. But we can't deny Keyes his vision: remaking the chain into a dining destination that shoppers ideally duck into a couple of times a week. In Dog Bites (and our friend), the company has found true believers. So when our press credentials score us an afternoon at the "University of 7-Eleven" shindig at the Moscone Center, we are there, ready to marvel that the concoction spurting from the "cappuccino" machine really does taste just like French toast. Perhaps the caffeine is starting to take hold.
Soon we are careening toward an expansive spread that beckons like the world's most delicious convenience store- catered cocktail party. We're embraced by the press maven, possibly the only person on Earth whose 7-Eleven fandom eclipses ours. She begins shoving increasingly inventive sandwiches into our hands -- a blur of walnut wheat bread and havarti cheese and curry tortillas. We wash them down with a Big Gulp root beer float, in a cup that sends vanilla ice cream torpedoing into a froth of sugary goodness. We chase that with an energy drink the salesman claims is four times as potent as Red Bull. "I wonder if we'll feel energized?" asks our fellow groupie.
"University of 7-Eleven" is where vendors showcase new wares and the chain educates employees about its latest brews. Apparently, the snack trend of the moment is energy. Assuming we're store managers, the pushers offer us every energy snack in the house. Being courteous Southern gals, we ingest them all.
Maybe it was the citrus grape Slurpee (sucked through a Darth Vader head) followed by the energy breath strips, but by the time we get to the Diesel bars, which claim something like 10 times the kick of Red Bull, we are floating. We stare longingly at the corn nuts, wondering if they, too, can make our hands shake, then chug a Dixie cup of Budweiser's B to the E.
Lightheaded, we stumble in search of something to take the edge off. Wine? Taquitos? King's Hawaiian Sweet Rolls? But we're spotted by the press escort, who offers to introduce us to the head of 7-Eleven's coffee program. Normally, we might muster some intelligent questions -- like, is it true that pots never sit on the warmers for more than 20 minutes? Now we can barely suppress the giggles long enough to profess our devotion to the cinnamon flavor. Pegged as loyalists, we get talked into trying some gingersnap. As we stare into the shot glass-size samples, too bewildered to negotiate appropriate sugar and cream ratios, the man in the booth offers us full-size cups. We take them.
Outside, we hail a cab in a haze, and back at the office, we type like demons and wonder if co-workers can hear our hearts pounding. That night, neither Dog Bites nor our colleague even begins to get tired until 3 a.m. Yet, the next day, we wake up oddly refreshed. Thank heaven for 7-Eleven. (Nancy Einhart)