In the Swiss city of La Chaux-de-Fonds, which shares a border with France, you will find a small restaurant open weekdays for lunch, from 12:15 to 2:00 p.m. Located on a quiet side street, just below the Grand-Temple, Restaurant Le Pantin features brightly colored walls, a friendly atmosphere and a 3-course set menu, starting with soup and ending with dessert.
What makes this restaurant special is the cost: 5 Swiss francs. By serving up a warm, healthy and affordable meal—something everyone deserves, regardless of income level—this restaurant provides an essential service for people in need.
Restaurant Le Pantin is a program of Caritas, an independent and nonprofit organization that works to prevent and alleviate poverty in Switzerland and worldwide. Food security is one of several missions of this organization, and in Switzerland, this takes the form of meals programs, such as Restaurant Le Pantin, and its Epiceries, small markets where individuals and families who qualify can purchase food. According to data collected by the Federal Statistics Office for 2014, there were over half a million people living below the poverty line in Switzerland. This equals about 6.6 percent of the nation’s total population.
In December 2012, Restaurant Le Pantin opened its doors to the public. The goal? To provide a healthy and affordable meal in a social atmosphere. Its current manager and head chef, Sarah Thiemard-Bersot, has been there from the beginning. Everyone is welcome at the restaurant—you don’t have to provide any income verification or ID to dine there. The only requirement is that you pay CHF 5 for the meal, which includes beverages—a small price to pay in a country where a cup of coffee can almost cost that much (see Coffee in Zürich is the most expensive in the world, from Swissinfo.ch).
When I stepped into the doorway of Restaurant Le Pantin at approximately 12:15 p.m.—when the meal service begins—I found that most of the tables were already full. People were talking and laughing, and the staff were handing out steaming bowls of soup—the place had a warm atmosphere that I found very welcoming and inviting.
The server who took my payment pointed to a seat at a table where a family with children was sitting, but then an elderly gentleman called me over to one of the last empty seats at his table. I accepted the invitation and sat at a table of all men—some of them wearing uniforms who I think were construction workers on their lunch break. Everyone was friendly and patient with my poor French. Many at my table seemed to be regulars, and all had positive things to say about the restaurant. The restaurant has big tables, so no one eats alone.
During my visit, I learned that Restaurant Le Pantin has about 7 paid staff members working as part of Caritas’ Programmes d’insertion professionnelle, which provides temporary work assignments for people looking for work who are interested in the food service industry. While they do not have any volunteers, Sarah said that Caritas has other programs that accept them.
At the moment, she told me the restaurant does not have any plans for expansion, as they don’t often have to turn people away. The restaurant’s maximum daily capacity is 45. In the summertime, they open up the terrace and their capacity grows to about 55-60 meals. Over the years, the restaurant has made little to no effort to publicize itself—patrons generally learn about it through word-of-mouth.
Sarah said the meals she prepares are family-style—dishes you would expect to find prepared at home. I had a plate with a generous portion of cod with coconut milk and red curry along with rice, peas and carrots. The following day, she was serving beef tongue in a caper sauce and later in the week, she was planning on chicken with olives and couscous. She creates healthy menus, so dessert is not always a slice of cake. While I was there, we had a salad of sliced bananas, for example. Her menu, which she publishes for the week online, does not specify the type of soup, vegetables or dessert, as she bases her menu choice that day on what is available. Beverages, such as tea and coffee, are included in the meal price. No alcoholic beverages are allowed.
A large portion of the restaurant’s food comes from Table Suisse, a nonprofit organization in Switzerland that redistributes food collected from supermarkets, like Coop and Migros, to programs like soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Caritas and the Ville de La Chaux-de-Fonds, among others, provide financial support.
Along with nutritious meals, sometimes which follow a theme—such as during the World Cup soccer tournament or for holidays, like Halloween or Christmas—Sarah also offers workshops once a month on various food-related themes. You can learn cooking techniques at a class like, “Que faire avec une pomme?” (What to make with an apple?) or learn about reading food labels at “Comprendre l’étiquette d’un produit.” These workshops are open to all with no pre-registration required.
I have great respect for the work that Sarah and her staff are doing at Le Pantin. Not only does she provide healthy food, but she also allows people to share their meal with others, in a supportive environment where everyone is welcome, no matter what your circumstances. A big thanks to Sarah and my dining companions that day, for a lovely meal and good conversation.
Restaurant Le Pantin, Rue de la Ronde 5 à La Chaux-de-Fonds. For more information or to make a financial contribution, you can contact Caritas Neuchâtel, Vieux-Châtel 4, 2002 Neuchâtel, Tel. 032 886 80 70, firstname.lastname@example.org.