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Eat Well, Pay What You Can

John Moe

Marc Sanchez

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Brad Birky with happy SAME customers
(Courtesy Brad Birky)
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Brad Birky and his wife Libby used to be volunteer cooks at a halfway house in Denver. But they had a problem. The ingredients they had to work with -- fruits and veggies past their prime, that kind of thing. They didn't want to eat it and they sure didn't want to serve it to other people.

So instead, Brad and Libby opened a cafe that could serve the same crowd they had been helping before. They called it the SAME cafe, for So All May Eat. When it comes time to pay for your food at the SAME Cafe, they do things a little differently: You pay what you want, or what you can. If you can't pay, you can volunteer your time. I asked Brad how customers react to that:

Brad Birky: The look on there faces is pretty wide-eyed, you know, the first time they hear what our model is and see what's going on... It takes them a few minutes to absorb it. But after that, then it's [a] very positive reaction, folks want to participate and they want to, a lot of the times they'll stop whatever they are doing and they will come back and give us a hand for a few minutes or they will ask a lot of questions and want to learn more about it.

John Moe: "Give a hand" -- what do you mean by that?

We offer folks the opportunity to volunteer here at the cafe, so anybody who wants to can take a few minutes, they can help us by wiping off tables, clearing dishes, sweeping, moping floors, you know, anything that is going on and anything that needs to be done at that time. A lot of folks will use that as their sort of payment for the food as well, instead of leaving something monetary or maybe supplementing what they could leave monetarily, they'll also give in terms of labor.

Moe: Did you have to go to a bank and get a loan and explain to a guy at a bank that I want to open a cafe and I'm not going to have any set prices and people can pay whatever they feel like?

Birky: We did go through that process, although we didn't come away with any money. We received a very polite 'No thank you,' so we had to self-fund the cafe through our savings over a number of years.

Do you make any money off of doing this under this economic model, or are you just a nice guy giving out free food?

The restaurant itself is organized as a nonprofit so our goal is to just stay afloat. And for the past year-and-a-half, we have been able to do just that. We have been able to keep our doors open, keep the lights on, pay for our food bills and, recently, I have been able to become an employee instead of just a volunteer here, so now we are able to pay a salary as well.

I could see a restaurant like this working really, really well in a very wealthy neighborhood and running into some more challenges in a neighborhood that is having more economic hard times. What kind of neighborhood are you in?

It's kind of a mixed-population neighborhood -- we're right in between residential and business districts. There are folks on the street right outside the door, and there are also upper- and business-class people that live around here and work in this area as well. So it's a good mix, it's all over the board.

The cost of food has been rising lately. How have you been affected by that raising cost?

You know, we do soup and salads and pizzas here at the restaurant, and we make most of that from scratch, so while the cost of processed foods is raising quite a bit, the cost of the raw ingredients isn't quite as dramatic. So we have been able to keep going and keep things balanced out through that.

So Brad, what's on the menu today?

Today's menu is -- we are doing a green chili made with turkey, and we are also doing a French onion soup. We're doing a spinach salad with strawberries and a quinoa with southwestern veggies. We are doing a couple kinds of pizzas, as well -- we are doing a pepperoni-portobello pizza and an apple, pecan and blue cheese.

Wow, those sound really good. What's that going to cost me?

Well, that's the great thing. It's going to cost you whatever you think is fair for the amount that you ate. And just put that in the donation box and you're on your way.

Brad Birky of SAME Cafe in Denver, Colo. Thanks for being with us today.

Absolutely, it was a pleasure. Thank you so much.

  • Music Bridge:
    The Lone Office
    Artist: Lambchop
    CD: Aw C'mon (Merge)


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