On a crisp, sunny Wednesday afternoon in mid-November, the volunteers cleaning tables and chopping vegetables at SAME Cafe skew young: Rock Canyon High School students are here to learn about the restaurant business while helping the nonprofit eatery fulfill the mission captured in its acronym: So All May Eat. The little lunch counter, founded in 2006 by Brad and Libby Birky as one of the country’s first pay-what-you-can restaurants, is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, so the high-school kids play an integral part in making sure the food is prepped and the dining room stays clean.
One of the students says she only truly appreciated the idea of a farm-to-table restaurant after she started volunteering in August (she’ll eventually put in 100 hours as part of the program). One of her first tasks was washing dirt off of carrots that had come straight from a farm that supplies seasonal vegetables to the restaurant. A trip out to that farm to help with a harvest revealed eggplants in stark white, bright orange and many shades of purple — vegetables she’d never seen in a grocery store, much less growing on a vine.
Farm-fresh produce has been part of SAME Cafe’s menu for the past eleven years. But when new executive director Brad Allen Reubendale came on board in July, one of the first questions he asked himself was, “How do I tell this story so that people know this is essentially a farm-to-table restaurant?” He says it can be tough getting people to realize that the restaurant is far more than a soup kitchen, and that the delicious lunches are meant for people from all walks of life, whether they pay for their meal or exchange food for work.
Reubendale joined SAME Cafe after the Birkys decided to step away from day-to-day operations; they had already added Letisha Steele as operations manager and chef earlier in the year. The two are the first paid employees to be hired since the Birkys started the organization. The founders simply needed to let someone else take over after running the place themselves for so long, Reubendale says, adding that the couple is currently on a road trip visiting similar restaurants around the country.
Working with the nonprofit’s board of directors, Steele and Reubendale are shaping the direction of SAME Cafe for years to come. Before she accepted the position, Steele thought her career as a restaurant chef had come to an end. “It’s the only way I would have come back into a kitchen,” she says. “I love it — it gives food purpose.”
While the cafe already had some gluten-free offerings, baking and cooking without wheat is one of the Steele’s specialties; she honed her skills at Watercourse’s bakery before opening Revelry Kitchen in 2015 with an almost entirely gluten-free menu. “So many of our guests have dietary restrictions,” she notes, so she’s focused on ensuring that all dishes — the pizzas, soups, salads and desserts served from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day but Sunday — are nutritionally balanced, whether gluten-free, vegetarian or otherwise. “For so many people experiencing food insecurity, this may be the only meal of the day, so we want to make sure they’re fully nourished,” she adds.
There’s no suggested price for any of the dishes, so that nobody will look at the menu and think they don’t belong — but diners are welcome to exchange a meal for a half-hour or so of volunteer work if they choose. Those who can neither pay nor work are still welcome, Reubendale explains. He knows the feeling of food insecurity himself; that’s how he found SAME in the first place. He’s worked as a program director and a court-appointed special advocate for groups like Urban Peak and CASA; he also has a Master’s of Divinity degree from the Denver Seminary and was at one time a pastor. “But I was excommunicated after I came out,” he explains. “SAME became a safe place for me to engage in the community after I lost everything.”
Lunch at the cafe was an inexpensive way to enjoy good food while he got back on his feet, and now he’s helping others do the same. “Forty percent of youth on the streets are LGBTQ,” he points out. “The marginalization that happens there is part of why I found this place.”
Reubendale is still learning the ropes of the restaurant side of the business; he often volunteers for food duties but says he tells the chef, “You’re the boss in the kitchen, and I’ll keep the money coming in.” With his expertise in running nonprofit programs and fundraising, he’s busy devising new ways to make an impact. Reubendale and Steele both have ideas for sharing the SAME message with more people, as well as for developing the culinary program. Next year they’ll roll out a SAME Cafe food truck that will spend half of its time in food deserts, providing free or reduced-cost meals, and the other half at festivals and food-truck rallies selling pizza and other street-friendly grub. “If we hit the fifty-fifty mark of people who love what we do and people who need what we do, then that’s where we find success,” Reubendale says, adding that he thinks the mobile rig will be the first nonprofit food truck in the country when it debuts.
Also new is a token program that allows customers to buy tokens they can give away to anyone who might need a free meal. “The idea is that you can do two good deeds at once,” the director explains. By purchasing a token (for a suggested $12), you put money into SAME, and by giving the token to someone on the streets, you provide a meal.
Steele plans to revamp the menu in January with more hearty stews and grain bowls that provide a wider range of nutrition, especially during colder months, when fresh produce isn’t available from such farm partners as the Denver Botanic Gardens, Ekar Farm and urban gardens around the city. SAME Cafe pays for the majority of food it brings into its kitchen, mainly to avoid donations of low-quality or outdated food. And even most of the donated produce doesn’t come entirely free. “It’s a one-to-one trade,” Steele notes, using Ekar as an example. “At the end of the season, I do their harvest dinner.”
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SAME volunteers also help out with harvests of crops that tend to come in all at once: asparagus in the spring, kale and chard in early summer and squash a little later on. The restaurant keeps the surplus and freezes what it can’t immediately use. During the growing season, the cafe hosts harvest dinners as quarterly fundraisers; Steele and Reubendale plan to expand the program to include a brunch fundraiser, a gala in March at Space Gallery, and special events with guest chefs from well-known Denver restaurants. Steele says she also plans to introduce cooking classes to raise more money.
While the cafe wasn’t the first of its kind in the U.S., it was a first in Denver, and it’s now the longest-running pay-what-you-can restaurant in the country. That the Birkys decided to hand over the reins in order to bring new energy and ideas to the project speaks to their desire to keep their creation going for the long term. And the hope of the new chef and director? Nothing more than for you to go in and buy yourself lunch or give your time in exchange for a meal. Every time you do, you’ll ensure that someone else receives a good meal served with respect and dignity, too.
SAME Cafe is located at 2023 East Colfax Avenue and is open from 11 a.m to 2 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Call 720-530-6853 or visit the SAME Cafe website for more information, including volunteer and donation opportunities.