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Miss Kim restaurant 'bets on the goodness of people' with pay-as-you-can program

Sliding scale on core to-go items is designed to make Ji Hye Kim’s Korean menu more accessible to those in need.
The pay-as-you-can sliding scale is available only for core to-go items. /Photographs courtesy of Miss Kim.

Hoping to give people in need access to a good meal, the Ann Arbor, Mich., restaurant Miss Kim this month launched an innovative pay-as-you-can program.

For a number of core menu items available to go — ranging from mushroom bibimbob to tteokbokki (rice cake batons) — guests can use a sliding scale for payment with four options: Free, half price, full price or the “pay-it-forward” price of full price plus half again more, which helps keep the program funded.

Chef and managing partner Ji Hye Kim said the goal is to help provide a meal to those who may be struggling between paychecks, and who may not be on federal assistance or feel comfortable going to food banks. In a college town like Ann Arbor, students may also be food insecure.

And though there is a risk that the program could be abused, Kim believes for every person who takes advantage there will be someone who gives more.

“We’re betting on the goodness of people,” she said.

The program was made possible by a $5,000 grant from High Road Kitchen, a program of RAISE: High Road Restaurants, an organization of restaurants committed to paying a fair wage, and racial and gender equity.  Miss Kim, which is a member of High Road, doesn’t take a tip credit, for example, instead paying what Kim describes as a living wage, along with generous benefits.

Ji Hye Kim

Ji Hye Kim was twice nominated for a James Beard Award and was named Food & Wine Best Chef in 2021. /Photographs courtesy of Miss Kim.

Kim said the restaurant won the grant during the pandemic to provide community meals, but Miss Kim had already collected funding to support a local food bank, Meals on Wheels and providing meals to healthcare workers.

Miss Kim “came out intact” after the pandemic, Kim said. “We never had to close because of staff shortages. And financially we’re doing well.”

The restaurant, which is part of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses affiliated with the iconic Ann Arbor deli, was a semifinalist for two James Beard Awards since 2020 and Kim was named a Food & Wine Best Chef in 2021.

So Kim decided to use the grant to develop the sliding scale program with the hope of making the funding last longer. The program will go on as long as there’s money to do it. And the restaurant has applied for a second grant.

For the items on the RAISE menu, Miss Kim will not take a profit, keeping only what’s needed to cover food costs and allotting the rest to the program to stretch it further.

People are using it, she said.

“I got a really nice note from someone who said they had limited income and they had COVID, so they lost income because they had to take time off,” she said. “He was able to order food, and he said it was delicious and that it made his day. I was really proud to get that note.”

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