It turns out an anti-capitalist cafe called ‘The Anarchist’ that let customers pay whatever they wanted couldn’t turn a profit

May 16, 2023, 6:34 PM UTC
Man drinking coffee
Was that a free coffee?
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There’s no such thing as a free lunch—literally. The Canadian man Gabriel Sims-Fewer (it’s difficult to call him a businessman or entrepreneur) put this to the test last May when he launched “The Anarchist” on Toronto’s Jarvis Street, asking customers to “pay what you can” for his 12-ounce rotating drip coffee. House roaster and landlord Pop Coffee Works offered the premises for free for the first six months. But utopian ideals only get you so far (or about 12 months of operating capital), and the anti-capitalist cafe will be shutting its doors at the end of this month, it announced.

A self-described white cisgender queer, Sims-Fewer had aspired to grow the café into a “worker co-op,” hiring those that didn’t grow up with his “particular intersection of privileges.” But reality has bitten.

“Unfortunately the lack of generational wealth/seed capital from ethically bankrupt sources left me unable to weather the quiet season, or to grow in the ways needed to be sustainable,” the owner posted on his site

As the sole proprietor, Sims-Fewer argued he wanted to bring a consensus-based democratic system to his small shop, where all employees would be endowed with complete equality when making decisions.

“All I had to pay for at the start was anything I wanted to sell, and the internet and utilities,” the owner wrote. “Even that was a lot more money than I had, but with the magic of credit card debt I was able to get the ball rolling.” 

While The Anarchist also levied stiff prices for beverages like its Chai Latte, which cost 5.75 Canadian dollars, there are restaurants that have adopted a Pay-What-You-Can where there is a kind of honor system in place with people encouraged to pay what they feel is appropriate or opt to volunteer their own time and labor in exchange.

One of the best known in the United States is the SAME Cafe in Denver – short for “So All May Eat“. But an attempt by fast casual eatery Panera to create a chain called “Panera Cares” failed, with the last of five such restaurants closing in February 2019.

Cafes have traditionally been a popular counterculture scene for left-leaning intelligentsia (going back to their historic role as incubators of revolution in the 19th century), and this is true not just in capitalist America but across the entire world. The Anarchist, however, took that to a whole different level. Customers enticed by the pay-what-you-can concept may have been promptly discouraged by books sold at the cafe such as Off with their Heads: An Antifascist Coloring Book for Adults of All Ages.

What Sims-Fewer viewed as utopian ideals could be construed as hurtful and even downright offensive by others. Its Instagram account advocated class warfare or perpetrating indiscriminate bigotry against whites as a form of reverse racism. Several instances revealed merchandise sold with the acronym ACAB—”all cops are bastards”—with one post depicting explicit violence against them.

In February, he reached out on social media for donations to help keep the shop open: “Running this place without a penny of funding, only one worker, and a commitment to providing food, drinks, and a welcoming space to anyone who needs it, whether they can pay or not, is as exhausting and financially challenging as it is rewarding,” he wrote.

Instead the “misanthropy of capitalism,” as he called it, has ended his brief experiment before it ever really got off the ground. Sims-Fewer didn’t seem dejected, though, putting a positive spin on things.

“The Anarchist has been a huge success in every way I hoped, and has given me so much inspiration and education that I plan to put to use in future projects,” he finished.

With his unorthodox views, it may be a long time before he finds another investor willing to support another one of his commercial endeavors. But that may not be the point.

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