In the middle of Times Square, surrounded by Broadway theaters and Michelin-starred restaurants, sits an unassertive vegan restaurant that glows with pink neon lights above a marble bar. P.S. Kitchen is known for its splashy cocktails and upscale vegan fare, but more quietly, it is working to change lives.
Every business owner wants to achieve maximum return on investment (ROI), but maybe not in quite the same way as Graham Smith and April Tam Smith pursue it. They’ve borrowed tips and tricks from socially conscious business ventures and combined them artfully into one restaurant where every aspect of the business has a higher purpose—from the environmentally conscious fare to the intention with which they hire each cook or server.
The founders say that the restaurant’s revenue goes straight to organizations like ethical apparel brand Share Hope, anti–human trafficking nonprofit Restore NYC, and Justice Rising, which works to bring peace through education in war-torn countries. As a plant-based restaurant, the cuisine aims to be environmentally friendly and healthy. And, as a socially conscious restaurant, management hires people who struggle to stay gainfully employed. These three missions are what they call, as noted on the bottom corner of the menu, the “three PS’s.”
“It's like the end of an email,” April Tam Smith said. “I want to make sure people want to come because they find the food delicious and they love being here. It’s simply, by the way, we also do all of these other things. Like, oh, PS, we also give away all the profits. … And what’s really cool about the three PS’s is that [every employee is] really passionate about one of them.”
The restaurant is a brick-and-mortar representation of the Smiths’ life philosophy.
While April is a friendly whirlwind of generosity and grandiose ideas, Graham Smith is the quieter, more measured partner.
“We joke that I’m the gas pedal and he’s the brakes,” April said, laughing, about her husband. The two met at a Bible study with their previous church, Redeemer Presbyterian, back when Tim Keller was pastoring the multicampus church. Graham and April, the daughter of immigrants from Hong Kong, were working in investment banking and bonded immediately over their pull toward radical generosity.
Now, the Smiths’ lifestyle and budget fit almost into what some refer to as “reverse tithing”— giving away the bulk of their income while living off of a more modest sum. Following the Old Testament example of tithing as first mentioned in Genesis 14:20, many churches encourage their congregations to give away 10 percent of their income. But the concept of reverse tithing (giving away around 90 percent of your income) was made popular by Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren, whose best-selling Purpose-Driven Life allowed him and his wife to give away vast amounts of money.
Although he hadn’t heard of Warren’s personal challenge to live generously, Graham had been living similarly when he first moved to the city. One of his professors at Wheaton College, David Sveen, had warned his entrepreneurship students against “golden handcuffs,” the idea that becoming attached to a lavish lifestyle or luxurious company perks can enslave the individual to a high-paying and demanding career. It made an impact on Graham.
Fresh from spending two months in Kampala, Uganda, Graham arrived in New York to work for Credit Suisse, determined to live modestly. While excelling in his career, he slept on a bunk bed, shared a two-bedroom apartment with four other roommates, and relied on public transportation.
“I saw finance not as a way of accumulating, but as distributing,” Graham said. The excess income he began to build early in his career he started to give away, a habit that drew him to April and that they have continued throughout their marriage.
For example, while their combined income (Graham now works in venture capital) would allow for many luxuries, the two have chosen to live in Harlem, a more affordable neighborhood in the city. And for their whole marriage, they’ve lived with roommates, whose rent payment is either nonexistent or given away to charity, according to the Smiths.
“We’ve had three roommates in five years,” Graham said. “We do community with them. That has been interesting and challenging at times.”
Most notably, the couple—along with the investment of their two other business partners—poured two years of post-tax income into building P.S. Kitchen and getting it off the ground, collaborating with industry experts Craig Cochran and Jeffrey LaPadula. Three months after getting married, they signed a 15-year lease in Times Square. Since they are donating the proceeds, they are currently not making money from the restaurant, the Smiths said.
“I think being in New York, there’s a lot of comparison” and fear of missing out, Graham told the Crazy Good Turns podcast last year. “There’s a type of anxiety that lives in New York City … I like to think of the phrase, ‘The secret to living is giving.’ So really getting outside of yourself.”
April also sits on five nonprofit boards (her main hobby is “volunteering,” she said). As she was serving around the city, April said she was struck by how difficult it was for some people from disadvantaged backgrounds to land a job. One of the goals of P.S. Kitchen is to offer employment opportunities to those who were previously incarcerated or disadvantaged for other reasons. In the past two years, they’ve offered jobs to more than 50 people who needed a second chance, they said. Their first “graduate” of P.S. Kitchen recently moved on to culinary school after working for the restaurant.
While their profit is small, the P.S. Kitchen donor-advised fund has given away over $130,000 to different nonprofits since opening in 2017. But the vegan, plant-based fare also attracts a different type of buy-in—from animal-rights advocates and environmental activists. The restaurant has garnered attention and visits from all kinds of visitors, from Oprah to the cast of Hamilton to members of the New York Knicks.
“We wanted to start a place that had a maximum ROI in terms of return on impact,” April said. “We view working here as a mission, and not just a job—and that really changed things.”
Similarly, Graham’s former professor, Sveen, believes that what’s equally important as a Christian witness in the Smiths’ enterprise is not just the financial giving—it’s also how they run their business. Are they kind to their employees and treat them as equals; do they pay them a fair wage and care about their families?
“The generous giving is fantastic, but there’s more that is important,” Sveen said. “It’s not just financial, it’s environmental, relational” factors that should testify to Graham and April’s belief that “Jesus is who he claims to be and are going to live that out in their economic enterprise.”
Graham, who graduated from Wheaton in 2012, recently won the Young Alumni Award from the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), an annual recognition presented to unusually successful alumni who have graduated within the past decade. The award is decided by committee after the schools nominate a star graduate.
He will be presented with the award on January 29 at the CCCU’s annual Presidents Conference for Christian college leaders. Past recipients of the 5-year-old award—a strategy for the council of 180 institutions to amplify positive achievements by Christian institutions—include Jacob Atem, a former “Lost Boy” of Sudan and co-founder of the Southern Sudan Healthcare Organization; and Angie Thomas, author of the New York Times best-seller The Hate U Give.
“We think [Smith] represents a Christian college grad—he’s got an extraordinary job in finance and is competing with best and brightest,” CCCU president Shirley Hoogstra told CT. He has “decided to organize his life where pursuing his vocation as a businessperson and finance person is good in the eyes of God as a vocation, and then also pursuing a social enterprise that allows for a imperative. You can feed the hungry and you can visit those in prison in a lot of different ways. He’s taking Matthew 25 and he’s actually putting it into a 2020 context. That’s a remarkable thing.”
Extreme generosity can look different according to each person’s resources and abilities. Not everyone can live on 10 percent of their income. But financial giving tends to be higher among evangelical Christians than among the general population. A 2013 Barna Group poll found that 5 percent of American adults tithe (give 10 percent or more) to a church or charitable organization, while 12 percent of evangelical Christians tithe. Predictably, while two-thirds of American adults with a household income of $60,000 or more said they donated money, only 45 percent of American adults who made less than $40,000 gave money away.
But for the Smiths, generosity is a fundamental conviction. They’re not living “like Mother Teresa,” April is quick to clarify. But in a city known for income disparity, their lifestyle is a radical witness.
“Graham said he wanted to marry somebody who would give our lives away together,” April said. “And that’s why it’s so much more than the money or the way we volunteer. Everything we have is God’s.”
Kara Bettis is an associate features editor with Christianity Today .
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