An article I wrote on Annalakshmi, recently published in SF Weekly:

annalakshmiImagine walking into an upscale Indian restaurant and peering at its menu with delectable choices like “Malabar Avocado and Coconut Soup” made with plain yogurt, cumin, and lemon juice and served with fresh cilantro chutney and whole wheat chapattis, or eyeing drinks like the “Saffron Sandalwood Fizz,” made with lime juice and pure water, and cooled overnight by the light of the moon. Now imagine sitting down with some friends at this elegant restaurant and enjoying a delicious, Ayurvedic vegetarian meal, served with a smile. Going a little deeper into this fantasy, now imagine you have just finished your meal, feeling fully satisfied, and signal for the bill, but there is none! You see, this, my friends, is not merely a fantasy. At Annalakshmi, it is in your hands to decide what you would like to order and how much you would like to pay.

Annalakshmi is a evolutionary business model based on a service or gift economy. Inspired by Swami Shantanand, a Hindu monk from Rishikesh, India who came to South East Asia in the early 1970s, Annalakshmi operates with an uncommon trust in humanity – trust that people will pay what is fair because we are inherently good and it is in all of our own best karmic interest to give. Although this concept may sound way too idealistic to stand a chance, Annalakshmi has been in business now for 19 years and has thriving restaurants built on this model in Singapore,Malaysia, Australia, and India.

Possibly the coolest thing of all is that we in San Francisco are about to be graced with our very own. Along Mason Street by West Crissy Field in the Presidio stands a string of buildings once used by the military. What’s striking about this location is its exceptional views of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Palace of Fine Arts and for the natural, scenic strolls along the shorefront. When The Presidio Trust recently decided to open these dilapidated buildings up for commercial use, they were flooded with proposals. When Annalakshmi, who have been looking for the perfect home in San Francisco, heard about this space, they quickly put together a proposal of their own. The Presidio Trust is currently reviewing the proposals and is expected to make a decision within a few months. In the meanwhile, Annalakshmi continues to look for other suitable locations in the city.

Behind the scenes is a 35-year old woman named Lalitha Vaidyanathan,
who quit her job to pursue this full time. “I always felt like Annalakshmi has so much to offer people beyond just food. 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.”

Whether it’s because of this uncommon trust, because of some unseen grace, or simply due to the power of selflessness, things just seemed to click as Lalitha began moving forward. She was introduced to Aaron Porter of the design firm Studio GS in Berkeley, who was quick to recognize the enormous value such a restaurant would bring to San Francisco. “As soon as I heard about it, I was hooked. I instantly felt compelled to get involved. It just seemed so bold and revolutionary in all the right ways. It’s something I really wanted to see happen in the Bay Area.”

Mr. Porter wasn’t the only person to lend his skills. Designers Ed Soos and Sunny Grewal of Studio GS jumped in as well, enthusiastically putting countless hours into developing Annalakshmi’s vision for the space on Mason Street.

Soon after came Bill Cain, a consulting engineer of W. J. Cain Consulting as well as Dennis and Connie McCullah, Berkeley contractors and prinicples of Odin’s Hammer, a business dedicated to green building. Both were enthusiastic to get involved in such an unusual project. “I was really fascinated by the whole notion of an upscale restaurant built on trust. It just seemed so improbable, but yet it seemed to be working,” said Dennis. “It sounded like the perfect kind of mind shift to complement green building.”

“Everything just seemed to be coming together,” says Lalitha. “We all want to be part of something pure, something that makes the world a little better. I think the reason that so many people are interested and willing to help make Annalakshmi possible is because they recognize its purity.”

In fact, one of the reasons Annalakshmi has succeeded in various locations is because it is run mostly by volunteers in the spirit of service. Here, the volunteers are also called Annalakshmis, the name for the Hindu concept of abundance. “People naturally want to volunteer because it allows them to tap into something Divine within themselves,” says Lalitha. “The human heart and its inherent generosity is the secret force behind Annalakshmi,” says Lalitha. “There is nothing wrong with making money, but it’s also nice to give in a way that does not seek returns. Volunteers for Annalakshmi understand this and our customers understand this. When we receive our food as a gift and pay what makes us feel content inside, we participate in a system that is in true accordance with our hearts and with our greater selves.”

Annalakshmi is actually part of a larger organization called the Temple of Fine Arts (TFA) International, and one of its main sources of revenue. TFA was also inspired by Swami Shantanand and also exists to provide a variety of services, all meant to better humanity. TFA offers programs such as dance and music that will not turn away a student for lack of financial means, medical clinics offering free services to the community, and art galleries and handicrafts, where proceeds go directly to the artisans, bypassing any middlemen. TFA’s most recent event was an Indian cultural performance at Lincoln Center, in New York City, put on without admission tickets, as their philosophy is that art should be available to all.

So how do they do it? Seriously. One might think this overemphasis on giving would be impossible to sustain. Wouldn’t there be too many people taking advantage of such a trust?  On a recent trip through Singapore with a friend, we decided to stop by and see for ourselves.

The restaurant in Singapore is ornate and beautiful, surrounded by exquisite handicrafts. Nearby is their gallery, medical clinic, and performing arts center. The Singapore Annalakshmi also has several smaller “to-go” outlets as well as a thriving catering business delivering lunches to businesses.

Meeting with Ganesh Krishnan , I tried to get the low-down. Ganesh said that “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, Ganesh seemed to imply that it’s just not much of an issue. One customer, he said, 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, just the same. When he realized that there was no gimmick, he became a regular customer and increased his payments. For Ganesh, personal growth is part of the whole equation. This is not a system built on money, but one built on humanity, and it just works out.

According to Sri Vathsan of the Singapore Annalakshmi, “Everyone involved is at a different place developmentally and each person is involved for different reasons, but ultimately everyone knows that there is something special about the place and that it brings an invaluable contentment to be involved with an effort such as this.”

Catching a regular customer, Padmeeni, as she sits down to eat at a “to-go” location, we ask her why she chose to eat there 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.” When asked how much she pays, she says that she pays the going rate if not a little more, as it gives her a clear conscience.

The visit to Singapore showed that the heart, generosity, and trust that goes into their restaurant runs deep. Behind Annalakshmi is a tight community of families and individuals drawn together in a genuine commitment to serving others. As we volunteered in the kitchen, cutting vegetables, it quickly became apparent that running a restaurant is no easy endeavor and to do it full time in an ongoing way is an enormous undertaking for a largely volunteer enterprise.

In exploring the phenomenon of Annalakshmi, it’s clear that we are in for a treat. Indeed, something wicked this way comes – wickedly wonderful, that is. Beyond just another great Indian restaurant, the arrival of Annalakshmi to the Bay Area is the arrival of the seed of a paradigm shift to perhaps a better way of living altogether.  What may stem from it, nobody knows, but I for one will be in the kitchen from time to time supporting a worldview built on abundance.

Annalakshmi currently operates in the following international locations:

  1. Australia – Jetty #4, Barracks Square, Perth
  2. Singapore – Excelsior Hotel, 5 Coleman Street
  3. Malaysia – Mid Valley Megamall, Kuala Lampur
  4. India – 804 Mount Rd., Chennai  and 106 Race Course Rd., Coimbature

Following are links to other TFA activities:

  1. ShivaShanta free medical clinics
  2. ShivaShakthi economic development program for women
  3. TFA’s inaugural show at the Lincoln Center
  4. Templeof Fine Arts School of Dance and Music in Singapore