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The scene that night was hectic. Brad, Libby and their supporters were darting around with beatific smiles, doing their best to act like they knew what the hell they were doing. And the food was good. I had a big salad. My daughter gave a very positive review to the lemon sugar cookies — an endorsement no seven-year-old takes lightly. I slipped ten bucks into the box and told the Birkys I thought their cafe was great.

When we got back into the car, I told my girlfriend they wouldn't last six months.


Brad is in the produce section of the Whole Foods in Capitol Hill, staring at the green peppers. He picks one up and rolls it once in his hand like a baseball, then tosses it in the cart, where it joins cucumbers, carrots, boxes of green leaf lettuce, goat cheese, artichoke hearts and kosher salt.

SAME serves an estimated 15,000 customers a year.
SAME serves an estimated 15,000 customers a year.
People told Brad and Libby Birky that they were crazy to start the pay-what-you-want SAME Cafe, but regulars are crazy about the place.
People told Brad and Libby Birky that they were crazy to start the pay-what-you-want SAME Cafe, but regulars are crazy about the place.

It's about ten degrees outside, and the tips of Brad's ears are still tender from a two-hour run he took yesterday. With his gaunt form and cloth eco bags, the 33-year-old looks less like a restaurateur loading up on supplies than a guy getting ingredients for a large dinner party.

"I'm shopping for today and tomorrow," he says, maneuvering through the aisles. "Got to get some corn — I'm doing a roasted corn and green bean salad with roasted bell peppers. I'm doing a turkey veggie soup with vegetables — some squash, bell peppers, celery, carrots, onions. Oh, and I've got to get some portabellas for the pizza."

He's committed to buying organic produce whenever he can, even if it means paying higher prices. Once a week, he drives out to a warehouse near Denver International Airport to pick up bulk items and produce from an organic-food distributor. For paper goods and other stock supplies, he'll hit up a Sam's Club or Costco. During the summer, he has a deal with Denver Botanic Gardens to get fruits and vegetables from its large, on-site community garden. But the majority of Brad's shopping is at Whole Foods. SAME doesn't get a discount, but last month the grocery store had a fundraising deal where it donated five cents from each sale to SAME; it raised $1,200 for the cafe.

Brad's total today rings up to $92.92.

As he's paying, he runs into James Foy, a friend and regular at the cafe. Not so regular lately, though — Foy's been slammed at work. So Brad updates him on the new developments. After SAME's grand opening, supporters donated a new mixer, a refrigerator, chairs and a new van. People were paying; the model was working. Within ten months, they'd repaid their loan to themselves.

Last year, Brad was able to quit his part-time job doing IT work for Qwest and pay himself to run the restaurant full-time. SAME was doing so well that they leased the adjacent storefront, knocking out a wall, doubling their square footage, putting in a second bathroom and adding 24 more seats. And last month, they hired an employee — a teacher Libby had worked with — to operate the Saturday-evening shift, giving the Birkys time to catch up on other duties like rotating stock, crafting the next week's menu and answering the deluge of e-mails they receive from would-be volunteers.

"So you and Libby are actually going to get a Saturday evening off?" Foy says. "Brad, that's so hedonistic. Shameful."

Foy remembers when the couple was pulling seventy- to eighty-hour weeks. Brad would be at the cafe all day while Libby taught; at 4 p.m., she'd come in to do the cleaning and stocking while he left for Qwest. Maybe they'd have time for a high-five as they passed each other. So compared to that, yes, it does seem a bit hedonistic for Brad to get the chance to really craft his menus, working off the basic theme of soup, salad and pizza.

While Brad loads the SAMEmobile — a new Dodge truck recently donated by a small family foundation — Foy ponders a restaurant that feeds the poor buying its food stock from one of the most overpriced, affluent grocery chains on the planet. "Business is business," says Foy, who works in software sales. "If you understand business and margins, you can make it work."

He met the Birkys six years ago through local charity work. "People want to help people who are helping people," he says. "As a Catholic, I understand goodwill, I understand what motivates people to help. But really, it's because their food is good."

Foy is a self-proclaimed foodie who thinks about such things as fine wine, aged meat and stinky cheeses. He likes going to SAME because the food is fresh and stripped down. "It sounds simplistic, but they've reintroduced me to tomato soup," he explains. "I love tomato soup now. Things don't have to be that complex. And for some people who have been eating so bad, it can awaken their sense of things tasting good and knowing what that feels like."

"There's a lot to be said for simplicity," Brad agrees. "You go out to a lot of restaurants, and a lot of the pastas are pre-packaged stuff. There's so many flavors in there that people don't know what chicken tastes like. What salad without thousands of calories on top tastes like. We like to keep it basic, because sometimes simple is good."

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