A cafe So All May Eat with dignity and without regard for wealth

A cafe So All May Eat with dignity and without regard for wealth

Here’s another good story with an interesting concept for how to serve the poor. A couple in Colorado have started a restaurant with no prices on the menu.

In the six months since Libby and Brad Birky opened a small cafe on a grungy strip of Colfax Avenue, they have no idea how much money they’ve made. Or how much their customers have paid for a bowl of chicken chili or a slice of organic pesto pizza.

Prices, profits — those don’t mean much in the SAME Cafe. The acronym stands for “So All May Eat,” and that philosophy is all that matters.

After years of volunteering in soup kitchens, Libby and Brad wanted to create a place that would nourish the hungry without setting them apart. No assembly-line service, no meals mass-produced from whatever happened to be donated that week. Just fresh, sophisticated food, made from scratch, served up in a real restaurant — but a restaurant without a cash register.

Pay what you think is fair, the Birkys tell their customers. Pay what you can afford.

This is a good free-market model that also respects the dignity of the poor. They are expected to pay for their meals in whatever way they can, if not with money then with bartered services, like mopping floors or washing dishes. So for an elderly woman who would normally spend $2 a day or week on cheap canned fish, she can instead get a balanced meal and some companionship.

The idea is also to provide the sort of food and service that will attract all clientele, not just the homeless or indigent. This brings the community together across all strata of society.

Until Dee discovered the cafe, she lived on instant noodles and cold cereal, with a fast-food burger now and then. Now, she lunches in the cafe at least four times a week. When she can, Dee pays $3 or $4. When she can’t, she mops the floor.

James, a part-time math teacher, is out of cash today. He carries his empty bowl to the kitchen, pulls on rubber gloves, and starts washing.

In the back of the restaurant, Will Murray, 52, is wondering how much to drop in the donations box after a meal of soup, salad, and pizza. Ten dollars, he decides. On the wall behind him are framed quotations about giving: “A person’s true wealth is the good he or she does in the world,” and “Be the change you want to see.”

“Maybe I’ll toss in a few more,” he says.

It’s tempting to think that their naïveté will be repaid with theft by those taking advantage of their good will and undoubtedly some will do so. But I think there are enough people who will do the right thing given the opportunity. After 9/11, the local delicatessen opened its doors for a fundraiser for the 911 Fund. For one day everything in the restaurant was free, but they left a basket for the customers to drop in a free-will donation. The owner told me he saw businessmen come in for lunch and dropping hundred-dollar bills. While Tony ended up donating about twice as much food as he would on a normal day, he brought in many times that amount in donations. Sure, there were some who got a literal and proverbial free lunch, but many more lived the spirit of the day.

I hope the SAME Cafe succeeds and that the idea spreads.

  • Dom, thanks for posting this for your readers. FYI, the idea started at the One World Cafe in Salt Lake City in 2003 (you can read this 2004 review from the Salt Lake Tribune).  An article in TIME magazine notes that the SAME Cafe founders went from Denver to observe the restaurant in Salt Lake and received help from the founder of the One World Cafe. Readers who would be interested in starting a community kitchen can find out more and download a guide from the One World Everybody Eats Foundation’s webpage.

    I have eaten at the One World Cafe in Salt Lake City, and it’s a great place. All the food is fresh and organic. They have both meat and meatless dishes. The counter with the food is part of the kitchen area, so if you have any questions about what the dishes contain or how they were made, you can ask the people dishing out the food since they’re the same people who made it.  The cafe has a volunteer work option for people who can’t pay with money.  I have seen a few people walk out after entering—either it wasn’t what they were looking for or the idea was a bit too much to comprehend.

    When I first heard of the One World Cafe, I liked the idea but wondered if it would survive.  They have not only survived but thrived, so I am sure the cafe in Denver will also.

  • (I should have put this in my first comment)

    The L.A. Times article on the SAME Cafe is longer than what was published in the Boston Globe.  The article notes that one of the founders of the SAME Cafe grew up Catholic.  According to their blog, they got their start cooking by cooking in a Catholic Worker house.

  • Very nice.

    Here in Dayton, we traditionally have a Thanksgiving dinner from the Beermans. Anybody could come who wanted to, so there was no way to tell whether someone was there because they were poor, or because they were lonely, or just because they felt like it. A few years back, the foundation that now runs it changed it to “poor people”, and their attendance and volunteer numbers dropped like a stone—especially among the proud poor. So the next year, they went back to admitting everybody; and now everybody’s happy.