Helping Others: Denver’s Do-Good Diner

Helping Others: Denver’s Do-Good Diner 2How much is an organic salad of arugula, turkey, cherries, walnuts and goat cheese worth? How about a three-course spread of crab and corn chowder, shrimp ceviche and sun-dried tomato and feta pizza?

SAME Cafe’s sunny East Colfax Avenue storefront windowsills house dozens of potted plants – fragrant herbs, plump succulents, thriving ficus trees and creeping philodendron. Dainty but struggling African violets adorn the humble restaurant’s small café tables. Cupboards contain board games and coffee mugs for self-serve coffee. A few large pieces of framed artwork shine among countless flyers, free newspapers and community bulletin boards. Homemade pizzas come out of the oven every few minutes, filling the restaurant with their aromas.

Brad and Libby Birky’s opinions about the value of food influenced them to develop a new concept in restaurant industry. SAME is an acronym of the Birkys’ sentiment, “So All May Eat.”

The couple’s commitment to helping others obtain food began in 1998 when they volunteered at a men’s shelter in Peoria, Ill.

“We’d cook whatever we were told to make. It consisted of garbage bags full of green and you were sifting through the bad stuff trying to find a few good leaves. Rotten vegetables, dented cans. The food quality that came out of that was just not good,” Brad said. “In fact we’d look at each other at the end of the night and say, ‘We’re going to eat somewhere else right?’”

Helping Others: Denver’s Do-Good Diner 3
At Denver’s SAME Café, the prices of these meals are entirely up to the customer.

To Brad and Libby, it was unfair to force men who were having such a hard time in life to eat substandard food. They realized through their work with the men’s shelter there were many people in need who were too ashamed to enter a soup kitchen, even though the men or their families may be suffering from lack of food.

The Birkys imagined a place where all people would want to eat because the food was delicious and the environment welcomed all. They researched the concept of a pay-what-you-can restaurant and discovered One World Café in Salt Lake City. They followed some elements of that business model to create SAME.

SAME offers one portion size of each of their offerings. Customers may select a soup, a salad and a slice of pizza, and if they want more they can get seconds at no charge. Customers may pay whatever they want; there is a drop box at the counter where orders are placed. If they can’t afford to pay anything, the patron can exchange an hour of service, cleaning floors or washing dishes, for their meal.

Volunteers can sign up to work for an hour at a time. There are 15 volunteer slots per day. The Birkys said 50 to 60 people volunteer regularly to SAME, and another 50 or so people volunteer more infrequently

People can volunteer for an hour at a time for the cause.

“Our volunteers are people from all over,” Brad said. “Professors, students, elderly, parents… We designed this concept to attract everybody. It’s cool to see it working.”

Many volunteers at SAME are part of job placement programs for people who need help getting work. Colorado Workforce and Work Options for Women both place workers at SAME café to obtain experience, including food handling skills and dishwashing skills. The volunteer experience can be used as a job reference in the future.

Donations given in exchange for meals cover 70 to 75 percent of the restaurant’s costs, including food, salaries and overhead. The rest is funded through small grants from local businesses and organizations and about 12 individuals who donate to the restaurant monthly.

The Birkys obtain the food prepared at SAME from local, organic producers whenever possible. Denver Botanic Gardens and various other small producers donate to SAME. Recently, local poultry producer Red Bird Farms donated three turkeys to the café, which were used to make turkey barley soup.

The lunch café’s simple menu changes daily. It typically consists of two soups, two salads and two types of pizza. There are always plenty of vegetarian options and homemade sugar cookies. A donation of time or money at SAME Café is usually traded for a three-item plate of food with a sugar cookie.

SAME Cafe’s super-affordable and healthy cuisine has made waves in Denver’s culinary scene. The restaurant is not only a fantastic spot to grab a quick and delicious lunch, but a comfortable spot to observe and participate in this small change in the way Denverites think about dining out.

If You Go

2023 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, Colo. 80206

Amanda Hall is a journalism major at Metropolitan State College of Denver.