SAME Cafe: wonderfully atruistic (and different)
Last October, the SAME Café celebrated their third anniversary. I worked in the kitchen that day. Well-wishers continually congratulated owners Libby and Brad Birky on a job well done and merit well deserved. SAME diners know the secret to the Birky’s success. The menu has no prices. Spendy? No. Trendy? Yes.
A restaurant that survives for more than three years must mean that the founders had a solid business plan , great funding, and years of successful experience in the biz. More than half of all new restaurants fail in the first three years. But SAME is different. It’s actually “wonderfully different” according to their website and the sidewalk storefront window.
Research conducted by Dr. H. G. Parsa, of Ohio State University, found three in five restaurants close during years one, two or three. Many times closures are blamed on poor management, because (they say) chefs don’t know how to run a business. Or, maybe the business was underfunded. Then there’s the oft-blamed Bad Location. Luckily, the founders of SAME Café listened to their hearts rather than the naysayers. I.T. guy Brad and elementary school teacher Libby knew they possessed the right stuff despite a lack of restaurant management experience, funds or a good location. Brad loved to cook. He was happiest when up to his elbows in macaroni. And whose idea was it to leave the prices off the menu? Libby and Brad each point the finger at the other. They funded the venture on a shoestring budget. As for the location, not exactly central albeit downtown but in an area targeted for “revitalization.” Looking back, the elusive recipe for success seemed to escape the Birkys.
But they were young and in love and …
anything but foolish.
This ambitious couple has turned the restaurant business upside down with their improbable success. Oh, and here’s the kicker – all their staff is volunteer! Workers must sign up more than a month in advance for the opportunity to work an hour or two each week.
So why does this work? SAME’s customers are special. A simple sign on the wall says it all. “No money. No problem.” SAME serves a diverse clientele; one who pays what they can afford for food and service. Price is discretionary. Money is dropped in a donation box at the front counter. All food is freshly made daily using ingredients that are mostly organic and local when possible.
Who takes advantage of the system? No one. If a patron finds him/herself without funds at the moment because, say, they are living on the street, working for food works. A person can bus tables, take out trash or sweep the floor. And if a patron finds him/herself with money to spare, they are welcome to leave as much of that spare change as possible in the collection box. Wear pocketbook diversity meets fashion forward and backward. One day last week, while working in the kitchen, I served a white-haired man who wore nylon shorts, a skimpy T-shirt, white ankle socks and some minimalist slip-on, open-toe, criss-crossy sandal things. He also had a big, square bandage taped above his ankle. Perfect for his February, Denver day. A woman, who waited in line behind him, wore a beautifully tailored suit and sensible shoes. They both ordered the chicken noodle soup which I ladled into mismatched coffee mugs and delivered with a smile.
Another reason this works is that Libby and Brad have poured their hearts and souls into improving the community and making a difference in the world by serving warm, nutritious food to all. SAME is an acronym for So All May Eat and their hard work and visionary creed have earned the support and love of the community.
People from across the nation have dined at the Café thanks to national media coverage. A few weeks ago, the CBS Evening News ran a five minute segment all about the café. Watch it here. SAME Café is must-see/must-eat destination for altruists everywhere.