Local chef brings pay-what-you-can restaurant to Dane County

FITCHBURG, Wis.– The chef that brought you Liliana’s and Charlie’s on Main will soon be opening a new restaurant, but it won’t be like the others.

Little John’s Restaurant will provide access to chef-quality meals at a price based on what the customer can afford.

“Nothing like this in the U.S., as far as I know,” Chef Dave Heide said.

The pay-what-you-can concept is a plan that Heide has been working on for awhile, even trying it out with soup at his other restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My whole thing is if you need food, come get food from us,” Heide said. “Like, don’t worry about it. There’s no stigma. There’s no anything. Just come get food.”

Heide said the pandemic shines a light on the need for food security, which slightly altered the plans for Little John’s. Now, the 25,000 square-foot building on Verona Road in Fitchburg will house a commissary kitchen, a training kitchen, a restaurant and community access space.

“Once we are open, we will be able to provide support to all of these other non-profits that are trying to get by,” Heide said.

Heide said Little John’s cooks and distributes meals to local organizations including Boys and Girls Club of Dane County.

Once it’s safer, people will be able to at the restaurant where the menu changes daily and the bill depends on the customer.

Heide said it will take $3.3 million to turn this dream into a reality, and he’s asking the community for help.

“Big investment now, but incredible impact later,” Heide said. “With how many people there are in Dane County, if every single person chipped in $6, we’re there.”

Little John’s upkeep will be self-sustainable. That’s partly because the kitchen partners with Metcalf’s to create meals from the food waste.

“That’s one of our favorite parts, is just finding grocery cart after grocery cart of amazing wonderful things,” Heide said.

An opening date will depend on how fast the money is fundraised.

Liliana’s in Fitchburg is still offering pay-what-you-can soup. The dining room is closed, but it is open for curbside pickup and delivery.