By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
"He really wanted to cook, and I supported that," says Libby, who'd gotten a job as a teacher. "But I had worked as a waitress in high school and college, and I didn't want to live the restaurant lifestyle. I didn't want him coming home at two in the morning because he closed at eleven and it takes three hours to close. We thought, 'What can we do?' We'd already been volunteering at soup kitchens and shelters and stuff — how could we connect these two ideas?"
On a return flight from visiting relatives in Austin, Brad and Libby began brainstorming ideas, jotting notes in the margins of an airline magazine. They thought about their past volunteer work in Illinois and serving meals at the Catholic Worker House in Five Points, and they decided they wanted to focus on the homeless population. But they also wanted to break away from the traditional soup-kitchen model (see story, page 12). Though they recognized it was highly efficient at filling bellies, they felt there was "a disconnect" between the people serving the food and the people eating it.
"We were on one side of the table and we were serving people on the other side of the tables and there was no dialogue, no conversation," Libby remembers. "It was like nameless faces, just a sea of masses of people." Even though they saw the same people week after week, they never really got to know any of them. And the food? Well, it was soup-kitchen food. "There were lots of times when Brad and I would look at each other and say, 'Oh, we're going out to eat after this.' And we had that privilege."
2023 E. Colfax
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
But what if a soup kitchen served food so good that people with money chose to eat there, too? The cash from the customers who had the ability to pay would offset the cost of the people who couldn't.
It turned out the Birkys weren't the first people to stumble on the pay-what-you-want restaurant concept. A Google search found the One World Everybody Eats Cafe in Salt Lake City, which had been serving buffet-style meals without set prices, but with a paid staff, since 2003. Brad and Libby took a trip to Utah to meet with the owner, Denise Cerreta, and see how her place worked. The dining room was set up like a cafeteria, with a sign that suggested customers calculate payments based on what they would expect to pay at a normal restaurant — $10 to $15 for a full meal. They were then supposed to deposit their payment in a wooden "treasure chest." For those who couldn't pay anything, One World offered such "complimentary" items as rice and lentils.
After seeing One World, the Birkys started thinking seriously about how their own place could work. "We saw that One World was operating as a nonprofit, and we were wondering: What are the benefits for us, and what makes the most sense? Is it a nonprofit, or is it a quirky little restaurant?" Libby recalls. "That's when we really decided to go for it, when we came back from One World." Unlike Utah, Colorado does not require a food handler's permit for people working in commercial kitchens, so that would make it easier to find volunteers and do work-for-food trades, which would definitely help the budget. So they started the process of applying for non-profit status in late 2005 and began looking for people to sit on their board of directors. Finding them was easy. Finding financing was not.
"Banks weren't loaning to us," says Brad. "There was no way we were going to get a loan, even in 2006, when the money was still flowing. Not for a restaurant, and especially not for a non-profit restaurant with no set price, for people who had no restaurant experience."
"They really thought we were crazy," Libby adds. So the Birkys decided to cash in their IRAs and loan their business $30,000, signing a promissory note to pay themselves back.
It took them six months to find a place for their restaurant, a storefront at 2023 East Colfax Avenue, and even though it had been a coffeehouse, they had to deal with all the city's red tape. By September 2006, their money was draining away as they paid five grand for this, a thousand for that. If they didn't open by November, they realized, their project would be dead before it even got off the ground.
On the phone with their architect one day, Libby broke down in tears. "I can't believe we're going to throw all the money at this project and never even see anything come out of this," she recalls saying. "We sunk all of our money into this, and we're not even going to get to try it." But somehow the architect was able to pull the right strings so that SAME Cafe could open on October 20, 2006.
I was at SAME's grand opening, an event attended mostly by friends, family members and other well-wishers. I'd heard about it from a local book publisher, Susan Newton, a member of SAME's board of directors. I found the cafe in a turn-of-the-century building on Colfax near York, surrounded by dive bars, thrift stores and a martial arts studio. The space was small, maybe 1,000 square feet, with seating for only a dozen people. The open kitchen area was also spare, with a few sinks, metal counters and a fridge.