After years of volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, two central Illinois natives operate a Denver cafe with a fresh twist.
LIBBY BIRKY, MA ’02 and her husband Brad hope for a day when the story of their small Denver restaurant isn’t unique enough to appear on the NBC Nightly News. “It’s our dream that we live in a world where people take care of each other, and it isn’t national news,” she said.
SAME Cafe (an acronym for So All May Eat) has space for 14 patrons to enjoy healthy meals on real, but mismatched, dishes and silverware. Outside, there is seating for another 30 guests. The cafe’s menu board changes daily and is based in part on the fresh produce available to the soup, salad, and pizza eatery. For example, the potato soup offered last week probably isn’t the same as the potato soup this week.
But the biggest difference is that diners don’t receive a bill for their order. “It’s a pay-what-you-can philosophy,” said the Bloomington native. “Essentially, everybody who walks through the door eats free. We ask them to donate something to the community, either time or money or both.”
The unusual format has worked since October 2006. After eating, patrons put money in an envelope and deposit it in a box on their way out. According to Birky, about 60 percent of their guests pay. At the end of the day, the couple might find $100 bills in some envelopes. Others might contain shredded napkins. A little less than $5 is the average amount most days. Some customers with no money sign up to volunteer for an hour. Their contribution might be washing dishes, cleaning tables and floors, or preparing food.
The survival of SAME Cafe might surprise bank and government officials who denied the Birkys a loan. Repeatedly told they were crazy, the couple cashed in their IRAs and loaned their business $30,000 to add to the $3,000 donated by family and friends.
“At first we were a tad bit discouraged by banks, but we had so many people around us who were supportive and energetic about the idea,” said the 32-year-old Birky. “Even our families, who were telling us to think things through financially, were still pretty excited about it.”
Within 10 months, the couple had repaid the original $30,000 loan. In the second year, Brad Birky was “hired” as a full-time employee. They have a part-time employee now, and Libby helps in the evenings after teaching gifted children at the Logan School for Creative Learning.
Originally, the Birkys moved to Denver for Libby’s teaching job. Desiring a shift away from his computer consulting work, her husband enrolled in culinary school at Metropolitan State College.
In researching how to start SAME Cafe, the couple discovered a similar restaurant in Salt Lake City. Returning from vacation, they made a point of stopping at One World Everybody Eats (not related to Peoria’s One World Cafe). The quick visit turned into three days of observing and meeting with the owner, who later spent a month in Denver helping the Birkys open their cafe.
Healthy food options are a key component of the restaurant. In designing the concept of SAME Cafe, the Birkys reflected on their volunteer experiences, which they often found impersonal. Along the way, they had noticed how appreciative people seemed when they brought along healthy food to serve. “They would say it’s easier to stop at a convenience store to get something to eat because it was cheap, easy, and fast. They had to decide between eating well and paying their bills. There was no way out of the cycle. It just perpetuated itself.”
The Birkys are committed to shopping locally, and have established relationships with farmers markets. “We try to cook as fresh as possible,” she said. “In the summertime, we’re sometimes serving food that has been out of the ground less than an hour or two.”
The couple finds the attention they’ve received a double-edged sword. NBC Nightly News, the CBS Early Show, the L.A. Times, Cooking Light magazine, and numerous other newspapers and radio programs have told their story. “It’s the one reason why we think we’re still open,” Birky said. “We don’t advertise because we don’t have the budget for it. But the media outlets that we’ve attracted have provided sustainability, more customers, more private donations, more grants, and more people knowing about us.”
Still, they wish restaurants like theirs were more common. “We’ve had a lot of inquiries about starting SAME Cafes around the country. We’re not interested in franchising, but we’re certainly willing to cheer someone on and be mentors.”
Visit soallmayeat.org for more information.