ABSTRACT: A network of autonomous Daily Communal Restaurants (DCRs) serving bulk-cooked, affordable, nutritious food would cultivate deep community spirit and generate far-reaching benefits.
2020 brought us widespread isolation, atomisation and disunity. To capitalise on a common urge to make up for lost time and repair wounds, DCRs can bring people together by recreating long-lost community spirit around delicious food — arming against future viruses not just nutritionally, but also through expanded support networks.
It sounds far too good to be true: simply by relieving people of the daily need to cook dinner, they would get significant extra free time to improve their circumstances and relationships. Consistently nutritious food can also guard against illness and promote healthy habits. Serving the food in a communal area leads to many further positives. Deprived communities stand to gain the most, and the potential benefits seem endless.
This proposal requires no extraordinary investment or talent. The first and most important daily task would be to cook and serve one giant pot of food, so perhaps three cooks and a cleaner/porter working a 5-hour shift in a fairly basic kitchen. Anything beyond those basics can come later, as the enterprise becomes sustainable via various income streams.
Imagine if, on any evening of the week, you could briefly stroll to a friendly, comfortable eatery and pay an incredibly reasonable price for a wholesome dinner. For new parents, the daily grind would be much relieved. For pensioners living alone, there would be daily socialising. For those on low incomes, it could reduce a range of expenses. Anyone lacking time to cook wouldn’t have to survive on junk food.
The impact such a scheme could have on the average family is profound. If instead of cooking dinner at home, they spent 1-3 hours every evening in a DCR, home utility bills would go down. Since each member of the family could get excellent nutrition at least once a day, lunches could be simpler. Not having to tediously plan, prepare, and clean up after dinner would free up many hours a week for housework, projects, reading, play or exercise.
A city with many DCRs frequented by thousands of people could see less crime, fewer traffic accidents, better school performance, and reduced strain on GPs. Children would be better adjusted after eating beside a variety of older people. From higher birth rates to lower divorce rates and more disposable income, these benefits could multiply across private and public life.
How could tens of thousands of DCRs become a reality and operate in practice? The impetus of the state and cooperation of local councils could ensure pilot DCRs are properly managed, then branched outwards to areas of high demand or deprivation. A gradual national roll-out could begin after a comprehensive strategy is agreed, and suitable premises have been identified.
DCRs could potentially be self-sustaining, democratic and fully independent. With fairly minimal resources required to initially equip each kitchen and seating area, networks of regional DCRs could spring up in support of each other, in constant communication via social media and experimenting with recipes, suppliers and organisational structures.
Each DCR would enjoy a steady stream of volunteers, donations and income from vending machines in addition to revenue from selling food to eat in or take away, at fixed or pay-as-you-feel prices. If necessary, main spaces could be hired out for events and groups before doors are opened for dinner. Favourable rent agreements and deals with local food suppliers would further increase viability.
Once a good dinner service has been achieved, a second meal option, or lunch/breakfast service would be a logical next step. When not serving food, the dining area could be open to anyone wanting company, drinks, snacks or warmth. Larger DCRs could have a play area for children. Every DCR should have a selection of books and magazines, and a hot water dispenser with free tea bags. Leftover food could be available to take away.
Popularity would depend primarily on the quality of cuisine, and the aim should be to establish a settled (but gradually evolving) routine of favourite dishes, each of which would feature around 2-4 times per month. The first recipes could take inspiration from anywhere, and would ideally be possible to cook in a single giant pot or pan. Cost of ingredients, local nutritional priorities, feedback from diners, and ease of preparation/serving would be evaluated over time.
Cooking should be light on meat and gluten, big on vegetables, herbs and olive oil. Dessert could be a small piece of reduced-sugar chocolate. A weekly meal plan would be available online and in a front window, showing which days are gluten free, vegetarian or vegan. Recipes could also be posted online, and the highest-rated dishes entered into contests judged by celebrity chefs.
The beauty of the concept is that each DCR could innovate and evolve in different ways, perhaps opening additional services and workshops, collaborating with neighbouring DCRs, or becoming centres of grassroots organisation in support of multiple causes. Such is the importance of ensuring each DCR is first sustainable, then independent, then preferably democratic. They should belong entirely to the people they serve.
A DCR focused on lifting residents out of poverty could offer free meals to holders of special passes, including free leftovers. A wardrobe could be used for donated clothes, free for anyone to take. A notice board could advertise items or services being donated, sought or bartered. Counsellors, financial planners, trade unionists, solicitors, career advisors and language teachers could be invited to give presentations and take questions.
This proposal must be ambitious and bold in the face of inevitable opposition from corners of privilege and power. The least it deserves is a properly-funded pilot scheme in places where people are loudly calling for it, organised by people whose background makes them obvious choices. The Heywood Foundation should launch a publicity campaign, involving MPs, trade unions, activists and public figures (maybe a Man United striker?)
Let’s do it!