Pay-as-you-can cafe serves up portions of love

RaDana Scott-Dalton at the Destiny Community Cafe in North Charleston.

Charleston is teeming with places to eat, from national chain restaurants to high-end, tourist-driven dining that’s found downtown near the City Market.

In North Charleston, one end of Montague Avenue near Park Circle has become a haven for trendy restaurants. Their menus treat diners to everything from pasta, pizza and barbecue to tacos and shepherd’s pie.

At the other end of Montague, though, there’s a new place to eat that is the first of its kind in the entire state.

The food is certainly familiar and the smells from the kitchen are most inviting. But the business approach is what sets this place apart from all the others.

It has a kitchen, a friendly staff and some of the best Gullah-Geechee food ever to pass your lips. But there’s something this restaurant doesn’t have: a cash register.

This is South Carolina’s first pay-what-you-can cafe.

That’s right, a daily buffet where the food is cooked with a Lowcountry flavor that’s designed to serve the under-served. It’s called Destiny Community Cafe, though there’s no sign outside naming it.

Located in a strip mall at Montague Avenue and Dorchester Road, there’s a tax-preparing service next door and an empty Piggly Wiggly store nearby. A folding sidewalk sign indicates food is available from noon until 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Ra’Gina Saunders, 40, is the owner and relies on word of mouth and social media to primarily let people know of this venture. It’s an offshoot of her Scott’s Grand event center, which hosts weddings, receptions, banquets, reunions and the like, and C.R.A.V.E.S. Soul Food Catering.

She’s not in this alone, though. On any given weekday, five generations of James Island’s Scott family may be in the kitchen, on the serving line or making sure some Motown music is being piped through the speaker system.

Ra’Gina’s mom, Vina Y. Scott, does much of the cooking. The recipes all come from grandmomma Ruth Scott, 77, who stops by to make sure everything tastes like “it’s supposed to.”

Like any self-respecting Gullah-Geechee meal, rice is a given. On this particular day, there’s also stewed chicken, fried chicken, mac and cheese, corn on the cob, zucchini and squash, a salad bar, sweet tea and lemonade on the buffet line.

It’s not all-you-can eat, but after a trip through the line, all you can think about is taking a nap.

There’s no pretense. Paper plates, plastic spoons and forks seem to be the appropriate accessories.

But what about the price? How can this possibly work?

It’s still early; they’ve only been open since the Monday after Easter. This stretch of town has not been good for restaurants.

In just the past year, five restaurants have opened and closed in the general area.

So, again, how can this place expect to survive when the entire business model is designed to pay what you can?

The Scott family has faith in what they’re doing.

The seed was planted during President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, explains RaDana Scott-Dalton, one of the five Scott siblings whose first initials spell out the business name C-R-A-V-E, with an “S” at the end for Scott.

“We’ve always been a family that cooked for community,” she says. They decided to do so to celebrate the inauguration, and the guest list swelled so much that the family had to rent a community center.

“From our own pockets we fed over 300 people that night,” Scott-Dalton says. “We pooled our money together and God made a way.”

From that, the family’s energy morphed into opening a soul food restaurant on Meeting Street at the foot of the Ravenel Bridge. But, “the restaurant business was difficult, harder than we thought,” she says, and it was forced to shutter.

She and the others prayed about what to do. And then, “God sent us catering contracts,” Scott-Dalton says, leading to the opening of Scott’s Grand four years ago. “We always knew that cooking was our destiny.”

Meanwhile, Saunders discovered the One World Everybody Eats nonprofit, whose mission is to combat hunger by fostering the opening of community cafes nationwide such as Destiny.

“It’s truly our destiny to feed the public, to give back to the community the way we do,” says Scott-Dalton. “We cook with love, from the heart.”

This business is designed to help people. It also allows some of its customers to share in that process. To avoid the awkwardness or uncomfortableness of the payment transaction, the customer is given an envelope. He or she can put whatever amount of money they have into that envelope and drop it into a box. That’s the transaction.

Recently, a woman placed 23 cents in her envelope and wrote that she was homeless and this change was all she had. Some customers slip $10, $20 or in one case $50 into the envelope to pay for their meal and somebody else’s.

One or two local teenage boys have eaten a plate of food and then swept the floors or picked up cigarette butts outside to pay for the meal.

Does Saunders believe the cafe is truly sustainable? “We’re praying we’ll be around awhile,” she says. “It won’t last without the support of the community.”

At any rate, there’s something going on at this nondescript North Charleston strip mall and it goes way beyond the smell of fried chicken, collards and red rice.

Reach Warren Peper at peperwarren@gmail.com.

Teresa Taylor of The Post and Courier contributed to this report.