By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
To find out what recent customers paid for meals at the SAME Cafe, go to westword.com/slideshow.
The first thing Brad Birky does is hand me an apron.
"Would you mind starting on soup duty?" he asks, guiding me toward two large industrial cookers near the front counter. "This is tomato corn bisque, and this is lentil."
The lunch rush is just starting at So All May Eat (SAME) Cafe, and soon I'm ladling steaming servings of soup into a mismatched collection of bowls and mugs. With me behind the counter are three more volunteers preparing pizza and dishing out salad and cookies to the growing line of customers, a cross-section of East Colfax Avenue foot traffic: latter-day flower children, sunburned day laborers, older women in librarian attire, laptop-toting students, professional bums, khaki-wearing businesspeople, vegan-core punker kids and the general miscellany of society that never appears in restaurant-industry demographics.
SAME has a menu that changes daily but always features food that's made from scratch and is largely organic. It has tables, chairs, bus bins, plants in the windows and overhead music (usually a mix of classic rock). But there's one thing SAME doesn't have: a cash register. There's no credit-card machine, no change drawer, no receipt book. That's because SAME doesn't have prices. Diners come in and order — some ask for just a cup of soup or a small slice of pizza, while others go for a whole meal, maybe even seconds if they're really hungry — and then pay what they want.
The concept is the exact opposite of Denver Restaurant Week, now under way, in which more than 200 restaurants in the metro area are offering a meal for the set price of $52.80 for two. DRW's goal is to entice diners to eat out more by removing the uncertainty of the final tab.
After only an hour behind the counter at SAME, I can pick out the new customers the minute they step in the door. Their eyes seek out numbers, first falling on the handwritten menu board, then drifting along the counter, searching for a printed menu with prices. Before puzzlement becomes full-blown confusion, Brad usually steps in.
"Is this your first time here?"
"Yes," says a young couple, him with a beard and her with an extra-long scarf. "We just moved into a place down the street."
"Okay," says Brad. "So we're a non-profit restaurant. We operate on a pay-what-you-want model. So we have no set prices. We let our customers pick what they want to eat and then pay afterward, however much they wish. If you can't pay anything, then we ask you to volunteer an hour helping in the cafe."
"Oh," both members of the couple reply. "Okay. Cool." They glance at each other to make sure it really is cool, then place their orders and make their drink selections from a choice of coffee, tea, iced tea or water. Brad hands each of them a small orange envelope with the number of their order.
After customers have eaten, they will put their payment in these envelopes, which then go through the slit of a small wooden box. That's the high technology upon which this business rests. The cafe will serve 55 people over a three-hour period today — a stat that multiplies out to roughly 15,000 customers a year. Some pay less than their share, some pay more, some pay nothing at all. And yet somehow it all works out.
Libby Birky still remembers the reactions of their families when she and Brad first confessed their desire to open a restaurant with no prices. Behind the smiles, the words of support and the offers of assistance were looks of deep concern. Friends were intrigued but skeptical. Loan officers and government officials were a bit more blunt. "They told us we were crazy. In those exact words," she says. And maybe they were a little crazy. It was the kind of utopian, half-baked, vaguely Boulder-ish concept you'd expect from old hippies or naive undergrads with more money than brains, not a pair of young professionals raised in the rural Midwest.
Central Illinois, to be precise. The town closest to the farm where Brad grew up had a population of 900. His family is Mennonite, which is like being Amish but with less old-timey hats and butter-churning, and with more social-justice work among worldly folk. Libby lived thirty miles away in a town that was a bit more cosmopolitan — it had a small college — but was still removed from the complexities of urban life. She went to a Catholic elementary school and a Catholic high school and spent summers on missions building houses for the less fortunate. After her freshman year at a Catholic college upstate, she met Brad through a mutual friend. They clicked. Not only did they share similar backgrounds, but their family setup was identical: dad in construction, mom working in the schools, brother, sister.
Brad and Libby married in 1998 and moved to a house situated exactly between their two families. Libby was getting her master's in gifted education; Brad was working as an IT consultant. But eventually they grew weary of their familiar surroundings and longed for a bigger city. After visiting Denver for a wedding, they moved here in 2002, found jobs and bought a handsome little place in the Baker neighborhood. Brad still had an itch, though. The IT gigs were bringing home the bacon, but what he really wanted was to cook the bacon, understand what flavors might go with the bacon, and serve the bacon in a way that maybe no one had thought of before. He realized he wanted to be a chef, and enrolled in the two-year culinary program at Metropolitan State College of Denver.
"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."
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.
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.
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."
But not that simple. Brad's particularly proud of one soup he concocted. "Apple bacon tomato," he says. "The sweetness of the apple, the smokiness of the bacon. It had this great contrast to it."
I'm standing at the counter holding the sharpest knife I can find, trying to chop a fig. I tell the other volunteer, Era Strelnikova, that I have never seen a whole dried fig before. She's shocked.
"Really?" she says. "I can't believe that. They're so good."
Eventually I figure it out and make long slices in the withered little balls. The figs are for a salad that Strelnikova has devised from ingredients she found in the fridge. Strelnikova lives nearby and helps out at SAME a couple of times a week as a way to indulge her passion for experimenting with food. In real life, she's the head of the economics department at Red Rocks Community College.
I ask what she thinks about the concept of a restaurant without prices. She says that when she tells relatives in Russia about the place, "they all say it has to be a front for some kind of scam. They are certain of it."
She doesn't see any scams at SAME, but she does see an interesting economics lesson. "If you're talking about a regular, neo-classical economic model, at the onset of that there is the assumption that a person is rational, meaning they will not deliberately make themselves worse off. Incentives in the regular neo-classical, free-market economy are always monetary," she says. "There really is no place for reciprocity. And we know now that in reality, people respond not only to monetary incentives, but they also respond to reciprocity. You can't explain giving using free-market theory."
Still, the concept isn't far from the free-market-inspired policies used to reform large-scale public housing in the United States over the past decade. "It's called cross-subsidization," says Karen Lado, who runs the Denver office of Enterprise Community Partners, a national organization that provides financing for affordable-housing projects. Since the mid-'90s, housing authorities across the nation have been tearing down the huge residential towers — you know, the projects — that had concentrated poverty into epicenters of unemployment, crime and drug use. Now governments work with non-profit development corporations to build mixed-income affordable-housing projects, where an individual who pays a relatively high price enables another individual to pay a relatively low price.
The Denver Housing Authority's ongoing redevelopment of Curtis Park, for example, strives for a mix of small rentals, townhomes and houses, some of which are subsidized and others that are rented at market rate. The motivation is both economic and social. "If it looks like public housing, it's stigmatized," Lado points out. "People are more willing to accept mixed housing." But the principle works on the lowest rung of the income ladder, too. In recent years, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless has used a complicated system of tax credits and grants to construct several loft projects to house homeless individuals with little or no income. To cover debt payments and other costs such as maintenance, the buildings include nicer, multi-bedroom units for downtown workers who qualify for affordable rent.
By mixing the soup-kitchen crowd with everyday eaters, the Birkys hope to create a similar community. In a way, they want to de-ghettoize food.
They're part of a growing movement. In 2005, Indian diners were delighted to discover a restaurant where you could pay what you want. Similar spots have popped up around the globe: a French bistro in London, a bakery in Ontario, Lentils as Anything in Australia, Der Weiner Deewan in Vienna. One World recently opened pay-what-you-wish restaurants in North Carolina. South Carolina and Spokane. The Terra Bite Lounge, a coffee shop/deli based in the upscale Seattle suburb of Kirkland, also operates on a "voluntary payment system." Customers order their soy lattes and bagel sandwiches and then pay whatever they want. "We don't ask for charity," pronounces Terra's website. "We believe we have better coffee and much better food than the cafe chains. All we ask is that those who can pay what they would elsewhere."
But not every experiment has been successful. The Shell Creek Grill & Wine Bar in Washington experimented with a price-free model last year but closed in December; owners blamed the poor economic conditions. For four years, the upscale Six 89 restaurant in Carbondale offered a "Pay What You Think" night every October, when prices were deleted from the menu and customers asked to pay whatever they thought the meal was worth (drinks and tip not included). But the restaurant gave up on the idea in 2006, after it became clear that diners were confused about overpaying or underpaying.
Marketing researchers in Germany recently published "Pay What You Want: A New Participating Pricing Mechanism," outlining the results of pay-what-you-want experiments in a buffet-style Persian restaurant, a cinema and a delicatessen. (It cost me $22 to buy the study online; personally, I would've rather paid more like $7.) During the study period, revenues at the cinema fell, which the researchers attributed to a customer perception that the movies were already overpriced. The average payment at the buffet went down slightly, but the owner ended up making a larger profit because volume increased so much. And at the deli, the average payment for drinks actually rose. This could have been because of the relatively low cost of beverages, but the researchers also pointed to the high amount of face-to-face contact that the deli owner had with his customers. This, they suggested, contributed to positive feelings toward the cafe, and customers didn't want to shortchange someone they'd built a relationship with. "By implementing PWYW, the seller can demonstrate to consumers that he or she believes in the quality of the products because lower prices can compensate for inferior quality," the researchers wrote. "It may also increase the chance of word of mouth and build up a positive pricing image among consumers."
Back at SAME, Strelnikova is really cooking. "You keep on thinking that if these people have an incentive to freeload, they will. But economic theory is just inept at explaining that. Here you are, giving someone an incentive to freeload or get something for a penny," she says. "But here they are making quite a bit of sales and quite a bit of money. So I do think there has to be something else at work, because, again, people don't only operate on monetary incentives. If they like something, they are willing to pay a little bit more for it. Music, food, books, anything. If they really like it, you don't have to persuade them to pay for it. They will be willing."
The idea of letting consumers pay what they want got lots of play early last year when Radiohead decided to release its new album on its website using a model that let fans pay whatever they wanted, even nothing. The band reported that downloads of In Rainbows out-grossed all previous albums put together, sending it to number one on the Billboard charts.
Good vibes might work if you're a mega-popular British band or a neighborhood deli, but how far will they go when you're catering to skid row? Brad reports that in the past six months, the average donation has gone down by about a dollar, while the number of people coming through the door has increased roughly 20 percent. If SAME's model relies on the benevolence of people who can pay, what happens when fewer people have the money to be benevolent?
On a recent Saturday, both Brad and Libby are working the counters, even though their part-timer is on hand, along with several volunteers from a local running-shoe store. One little kid helping out with his mom is flattening pizza dough into a disk with the concentration of a chess champion. The list for volunteer slots is sometimes booked weeks in advance — perhaps because an hour of labor earns volunteers a meal, and today's menu board lists "Turkey, Cranberry and Brie Pizza," "Wisconsin Beer Cheese Soup" and "Orange, Fennel and Greens Salad." Brad's inspiration for the pizza was a sandwich he ate at a Capitol Hill sandwich shop right after Thanksgiving. "I liked it so much, I pretty much decided to copy it," he confesses. "Just spread out into a pizza."
During the months away from the computer screen, Brad's yakking abilities have flourished. But 32-year-old Libby is still the unquestionable extrovert in the relationship. A teacher for gifted fifth- and sixth-graders at the Logan School, her conversations seem to move in one long flow between volunteers, patrons, friends and friends-of-friends stopping by to chat about the soup, the kids, the weather, types of tea, warm jackets, cookies, etc. Finally, she heads to the back and down the narrow stairs to the basement space they use for an office and storage, where it's easier to really talk.
On a table are several wooden boards painted with words like "Believe." Signs bearing such inspirational quotes as "A person's true wealth is the good they do in the world" account for a majority of the art in the restaurant upstairs. Libby says they display these inspirational sayings from Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Barbara Bush in order to cultivate an uplifting, positive environment for their customers, many of whom may need some inspiration: single mothers with multiple jobs, elderly with fixed incomes, recently laid-off workers and the homeless, some who struggle with mental illness.
Running the cafe has "really opened our eyes," she says, explaining that when you're poor, sick or living on the streets, you tend to eat badly, which makes you feel worse. "That's why I think that everyone deserves to eat really well. When you're putting good stuff in your body and you're feeling good about what you're taking in, you can put good energy back into the world. I think it's really important. If nothing else, it alleviates a lot of health-care costs."
But buying that good food is a major cost for SAME — about $2,000 a month. That's also what the Birkys pay for rent. Utilities run about $175 a month. Though their non-profit status gets them out of some taxes, they still must pay the city the 8.1 percent tax on all sales, plus a small payroll tax. Paper goods run about $50 a month, although some of that is donated.
According to John Imbergamo, a longtime Denver restaurant consultant, every dollar spent at a typical restaurant breaks down something like this: 30 cents goes to food costs, 25 cents to labor, 10 cents to rent, another 25 cents to things like utilities, insurance and other services. What's left over for potential profit averages around 8 to 10 cents.
Imbergamo thinks the pay-what-you-want model would be very difficult for a for-profit restaurant to pull off. "The fact is, there are people who walk into a restaurant and leave thinking, 'Well, I could have made that at home for much less than I paid,'" he explains. "And the food cost of what we're putting on the plate in most cases is only 30 percent. So if you pay ten dollars for a meal and you walk out of there thinking, 'I could have made that for three dollars,' you're probably right." But most people don't take into account all the other expenses that go into a restaurant meal, like rent and labor.
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."
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."
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."
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."