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Imbergamo is on the board of Work Options for Women, a Denver nonprofit that trains women on welfare for jobs in the food industry. WOW currently operates a cafeteria inside the Denver Department of Health and Human Services building; next month, it will open a restaurant at 1650 Curtis Street. Cafe Options will have the look and feel of a commercial breakfast and lunch spot, a "Panera Bread/Paradise Bakery sort of thing," he says. "The interior design was done by a professional firm. It's going to look cool and nice. There might even be people who don't know there's a mission involved with this."

The decision not to portray Cafe Options as a non-profit effort was a conscious one, since informal focus groups indicated that some consumers looking for a quick bite were less likely to come in if they thought the place was a charity. "And, more important," Imbergamo adds, "the women who are working there need to understand what the real world is, so we wanted to portray it as a real-world situation."

He points to two reasons why SAME is making it in the real world. First, most of the workers are volunteers, and the owners have been getting paychecks from other jobs. "Plus, there's the benevolence factor among clientele that allows them to make up for people who don't pay enough to cover cost," he says. "There must be people who go in there and spend more than what they would in an average restaurant because that would support the mission. Instead of giving ten dollars to the Salvation Army, they're giving it to the cafe."

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.

The Birkys certainly recognize the benevolence factor in SAME's success. Brad says he's struggled with how to deal with those customers who take advantage of other people's benevolence. "I've had to approach a few folks to tell them, 'Hey, you need to start contributing, even if it's doing dishes,'" he says. "It's a tough balance. We wanted it to be like there's no pressure, there's no one watching — to a point."

The few times that point has been crossed, it was by a person uncontrollably drunk or rude to staff. "And we walk them to the door and still try to be nice, but say, 'You're not welcome here,'" Brad says. "Every once in a while you have to say something to somebody because they're blatantly abusing the privilege of being in here and, just like, 'We reserve the right to refuse service to anybody.'"


At SAME one day, I meet a 43-year-old man who calls himself Coyote and says he's been living on the streets since 2002, after a bad divorce. He sleeps in an alleyway nearby, in a spot he refuses to divulge; he's fearful that others might take his place if word gets out. And he knows there's demand: The economy is so bad that his daily panhandling efforts have been netting far less of late.

"I eat sometimes out of the garbage over there behind Popeye's," he says. "I eat out behind Pete's over there and then sometimes I go behind Burger King." He'll also go to free weekly meals at places like the Church in the City, but he avoids heading downtown to the shelter kitchens. "Sometimes it's not worth going fucking five, ten miles out of your way to go get something. Then you've got to panhandle money to get on the bus and got to go there and got to transfer. Sometimes it's pretty good, but sometimes when there's a lot of people, there ain't nothing left and you gotta wait in line. And they got cookies, and people are taking three or four and there's a whole line — c'mon, now, there's other people, man. Grab one and go. There's just not enough to go around, I guess."

Even though he hangs out in this neighborhood, for a long time he thought SAME was a normal restaurant, so he stayed away. But then someone told him he could come here to eat even if he didn't have money. "It's pretty good here," he says. "I got a slice of pizza, the one with the tomatoes on it."

"That's all you got?" I ask.

"I only had 35 cents," he replies.

But there's no set price, I point out. "You could've gotten as much as you wanted."

"I don't know." He shrugs. "I only had 35 cents."

Michael Loveland is wearing full camouflage fatigues and army boots. He just got back from a fifteen-month stint in Iraq and is still waiting for a check from the Army, he explains between bites of pizza. His girlfriend, Julia, an eighteen-year-old with sad eyes, sits across from him.

"And she's pregnant, so, yeah, I'm having a hard time right now," Michael says. A guy from a veterans' assistance group told him about SAME.

"It's different," says Julia. "It's like a healthier choice. It's pizza that has good stuff on it."

"She's pregnant, so it's good for her," Michael notes. Although he won't say how much they'll pay for this meal, he adds that "we'll probably come back after I get my check."

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