There are tons of places to grab a bite to eat in Tokyo that cover the full spectrum of one's available budget, but in recent years one particular eatery has been appealing to customer's who have a rather tight wallet. It's called Mirai Shokudo (Future Cafeteria), and even if you walk in with no money you are welcome to a traditional hot Japanese meal--as long as you put in the work. The restaurant offers its daily special for free to anyone who works in the restaurant for a 50 minute shift.

Sekai Kobayashi, the shop's proprietor, allows customers a free meal (usually 900 yen) in exchange for 50 minutes of work. The system is based off the Japanese makanai, which refers to provided meals for employees of a business. In this case, customers get to be one-day employees with the option of serving food at lunch time or helping clean up the shop, which seats 12, for dinner. In an interview with Yomiuri Shinbun (via The Japan News), Kobayashi, the shop's only worker, says "I use this system because I want to connect with hungry people who otherwise couldn't eat at restaurants because they don't have money."

Kobayashi has a history of culinary curiosity and service, running a yearly (and award-winning) shop at university's festival, and staffing a bar in Shinjuku's popular Golden Gai neighborhood. She also worked as an engineer at IBM Japan before moving to Cookpad.

She's still found a savvy way to incorporate her engineering skills with her fondness for cooking, however, saying "To manage my restaurant, I adopted an open-source model - a system through which software design is made available for free to the public so that everyone can improve upon it...I posted the restaurant's business plan and finances on its website so I can collect input from the public on how to make improvements. This information is also available for those who want to open their own restaurants." This seems to echo her sentiments about sharing time and meals with new people.

For hungry university students, those looking to cut their teeth in culinary service, or simply have a fun experience while getting a free hot meal in Tokyo, the Future Cafeteria seems like a great and cozy way to do so.

Kobayashi started up the shop to counter advice she was given at previous cooking jobs--"Don't get too close to customers." Her model of sharing ambition and food with others seems to have done a good job of dispelling that, with more than 500 people already trying out the free food service. You can try it out yourself following the bilingual guide. For lunch shifts, you'll put on an apron and serve patrons, while at dinner you get your meal in advance and then help clean up shop.

By - grape Japan editorial staff.