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But for every hard-luck story, there's another from someone who chooses to spend money at SAME over other restaurants. I catch Kendra and Sarah on their way out. Together they had four slices of pizza, two salads and two iced teas; they paid twenty dollars. I ask how they calculated their payment. Kendra says she thought about the cost of the food, "the implications of how many people they have to serve," and big-picture stuff like how local, organic fare is "easier on the environment." Sarah notes how trust factors into the decision. "When I tell people about this place, they say, 'Well, I would pay a fair price, but nobody else would,'" she says. "But you have to get over that because it does work. People do pay."

Greg and Brad, another pair of diners, wouldn't look out of place grabbing lunch at some sit-down joint on the 16th Street Mall. When this Brad first heard about SAME, "I thought it would be full of homeless people, dirty, crowded," he admits. "But then I walked by one day and said, 'Hey, it's not supposed to look like that.' It's very clean and well organized, and I like the food." Today at SAME, he and Greg each ordered single slices of chicken, goat cheese, spinach and cranberry pizza, as well as small garden salads and coffee, and each paid $5.

Bob and Iris also paid $5 each. James paid $1.50. Greg and Becky threw in $15. Raven paid nothing but signed up to volunteer. Dewey paid $5. Renda, who's been living in her truck for the past year, paid no money — but she spends several hours every day at SAME washing dishes. "I have the cleanest hands on Colfax," she laughs, then grows wistful. "It means everything for me to be here. Everything. It keeps me out of the bars. It keeps me straight."

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 envelopes keep actual payments confidential. They also serve as helpful reminders for customers of their duty to pay for meals through work or cash, Brad says. But Brad doesn't really care who pays what. He doesn't even look to see what's in each envelope, preferring to pour the money out and then count the entire pile.

After a full day of volunteering, I ask if he would be willing to count the amount in each envelope. "We've really tried to focus on the idea that everyone deserves to eat, no matter how much they can pay," he protests. But eventually he agrees. Out of 55 envelopes, seven are empty. One has a piece of string with beads on it; two others are stuffed with bits of napkins to make it appear that money was included. Some contain as little as 25 cents, but other envelopes hold tens and twenties, and one has $23. The total take for the day is $201.45. This averages out to $3.66 per meal. Brad figures his food cost per meal at around $2. As long as he can cover that, the rest can go back into the business.

The Birkys keep food costs down by reducing waste. By buying ingredients fresh every two days, things rarely go bad. And since customers know they can come back for seconds, they're less likely to over-order. An entire day's trash from SAME will usually fill just half of a large trash bag — a striking fact in contrast to the National Restaurant Association's estimate that 20 percent of all food goes to waste.

The Birkys have been approached by people who say they want to start similar restaurants in other Colorado cities, and a woman in Boulder is currently raising funds to start a pay-what-you-want eatery, Brad says. SAME is doing well enough that the Birkys are now thinking about diversifying the menu, maybe expanding their hours beyond lunch Tuesday through Friday, and until 8 p.m. on Saturday.

"I knew it all along it would work," says Libby. "Even in this kind of economy in the last three months, when we've seen an increase in customers and a decrease in the amount of the donation box, it still works because our overhead is so low and because we rely on the majority of work to be done by volunteers. We only need a couple bucks a person to make ends meet. Pay the electric bill, put gas in the truck, pay the insurance, buy the good food."

And serve it with dignity. Libby talks a lot about dignity. Cooking with dignity, working with dignity, eating with dignity. Dignity in the belly, dignity in the mind. I think about this as I sweep the floors in my apron. It's near closing time, and I work the broom around a table where a man is finishing the last of his soup. He's in his late forties, maybe, African-American, with an overstuffed backpack and an old windbreaker. He looks like the type of person that SAME was created for, the sort of customer others would subsidize. I ask for his name and his story, but he declines to give either.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, I see him pull a dollar bill and all the change from his pocket — probably just over two bucks — and stuff it into his envelope. He puts his bowl in the bus bin and carries it around to the sink. As he walks out, past the front windows, I see that he has a sign of his own tucked under his arm: "Will Work for Food."

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