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.