In the ten years since Libby and Brad Birky opened SAME Cafe, the country has gone in and out of a recession, political landscapes have shifted, and issues that weren’t on anyone’s radar — such as no-tipping policies and living wages — have become national flashpoints. The Birkys have changed, too, expanding their operation, adapting to the community’s needs, and posing even bigger questions about what SAME Cafe — short for So All May Eat — can do to support its guests. One thing, however, has never wavered: their commitment to the fight against hunger, and for this, their pay-what-you-can restaurant has become a national model. Find out what the Birkys have learned over the past decade and what the future has in store for SAME Cafe in the following interview, which has been condensed for clarity.
Westword: Why did you take the leap from your previous careers in IT and education? Why was fighting hunger that personal for you?
Libby Birky: Because food is essential. Everybody eats; it’s what unites all of us. Something really magical happens when you sit down and eat together that we miss in this busy culture.
Your model is “Pay what you can” rather than “Here’s the suggested price, but you can pay less.” Why is that important?
Brad Birky: We never want someone to feel like they can’t afford it. Even if the price were reasonable, someone would still see a number on the board and think, “I shouldn’t be in this place.” We want to be equitable, fair, within the budget.
Were there lean years when you thought you might have to switch models to stay afloat?
Libby: No, not really, but there were years when we had to do more fundraising or write more grants.
What keeps you going on the hard days?
Libby: For me, it’s the people and the relationships we’ve built here. We have the greatest group of customers and volunteers. Their paths would never cross otherwise. They show each other dignity and grace. It’s beautiful to watch somebody from Cherry Creek thinking they’re here to help someone less fortunate, and then they realize they’re building community and they need it as much as the person who needs access to food. People find the SAME Cafe resonates with them on a much deeper level.
What’s been important in your business model? Do you receive substantial produce donations?
Brad: Less than 10 percent of the food we use is donated. It’s probably more like 5 percent. We work with farms and growers to buy food at a reasonable cost. We support them and they give us a great product. When you rely on donated food, you can’t control the quality. Slimy lettuce isn’t food anymore; it’s compost.
How important are your volunteers?
Libby: We have two regular volunteer spots, and people can sign up ahead of time. We also have space for drop-in volunteers. We have between 10 and 35 hours donated every day.
How many people do you typically serve a day?
Libby: Weather affects us severely. Unemployment affects us. We’re at about forty to fifty a day now. It was more like 100 to 115 a day when unemployment was higher.
Do you have repeat customers? Have some been coming in from the beginning?
Libby: I’m thinking of one customer, her name is Marie, who has been coming in for years and years. She lives in affordable housing, she’s elderly and on a fixed income. She absolutely needs SAME Cafe. She comes in here every Saturday. She hugs us; we helped her move. I’m also thinking of someone who used to volunteer to be able to eat. One day she came in and had tears in her eyes. She didn’t work but sat on the patio and was super-proud. That day was the first day she was able to pay for someone else to eat. She has since moved on, but she’s a regular contributor to the cafe in a financial way. She understands the value of what she received.
Have you had customers who ended up volunteering and getting the skills necessary to find work in the food industry?
Brad: We had twelve people use us this year as a reference and obtain employment for food-related organizations. We really want to keep expanding on that as much as we can. We’re turning our volunteer program into more of a job training, as needed, teaching things like food safety and knife skills. It’s one of the more recent things we’re focusing on, and it makes a long-lasting impact on somebody’s life.
Libby: We’re really flexible when someone walks in. It works on their schedule. You don’t have to complete fifteen tasks to get employment. What’s often lacking in the job-training world is there are a lot of hoops to jump through. Here, you only have to show up and work, and we’ll do what we can to help you be self-sufficient.
Lots of restaurants don’t make it for ten years, even without the added challenge of following a pay-what-you-can model. Is your longevity more of the exception in this arena, or the norm?
Brad: Around 2010, there were several restaurants trying this model. Of those, only us and Cafe 180 in Englewood are still around. That’s just here in Colorado. Nationwide, there are 55 or 60 restaurants doing this, and the rate of failure is really low, lower than regular restaurant percentages. I believe there are only four pay-what-you-can restaurants that have gone under since 2010. It’s pretty impressive that people are having that much success with this weird business model. That speaks to the community aspect of the model.
Libby: SAME is the longest-running restaurant of its kind that we’re aware of.
Wow, congratulations. Given your longevity, do you think you’re seen as a national model?
Brad: We do field a call once a month from people saying, “We don’t know how to do this. What did you do?” Weekly, we get e-mails from around the country from people wanting to start new cafes. We do our best to cheerlead them on.
What’s changed the most since you started?
Libby: The reason we picked this neighborhood was we didn’t see anyone working on equitable food access. There’s been such a big shift in equitable food access since we opened. Think about GrowHaus. Now there are farmers’ markets where you can use food stamps. There are lots more people focusing on this kind of a model than there were. Now we get calls from universities saying they want to study our social enterprise.
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What’s the driving force behind what you do: Providing food? Job training? Creating community?
Libby: To me, it’s to treat all people with dignity. We absolutely came to this and still do it every day to make sure people have awesome, delicious food. We build community, and it’s interesting to me that our medium is healthy food. But more than that, when you can look someone in the eye and call them by name and hand them a plate of good, healthy food, it brings out the best in people that I don’t see happening often enough in other nonprofit models.
What’s the biggest difference between what you do and something like a soup kitchen?
Libby: If you’re constantly eating what you’re given and you don’t get to decide what you’re getting and nothing is expected in return, that’s a broken charitable model…. If what you’re constantly putting in your body are processed foods, day-old bagels, leftover cake, lettuce that’s going bad — that’s going to have an effect on how you feel and how successful you are. When I eat crap, I feel like crap. I can’t imagine living my entire life eating processed foods that I didn’t get to choose. But look how different it is when someone knows their name or calls them out for missing a shift. You begin to make connections with people that really transform everybody. We need to stop handing things out and expecting things to get better. Until you hear about [people’s] issues and struggles and support them, nothing is going to change.
What’s the biggest misconception about SAME Cafe?
Libby: For folks who have never been here, people assume it’s only for people who need help. What really makes this work beautifully is that no one wears a name tag saying, “I’m working in exchange for food” or “I put twenty dollars in the box.” We’re trying to dispel the myth that we’re in the soup-kitchen category. We’re not only a resource. We serve really good, healthy food that everybody would love.
SAME Cafe is located at 2023 East Colfax Avenue. Find out more at 720-530-6853 or soallmayeat.org