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Posted July 11, 2007

A Success Story Well Worth Duplicating

Cafe's patrons pay what they think
meal is worth or work to pay tab

By Wayne Laugesen

If Jesus opened a restaurant, it might resemble Denver's 8-month-old SAME Cafe -- a priceless joint where all the food is made from scratch and anyone's welcome to eat regardless of ability to pay.

SAME stands for "So All May Eat." But it's not a soup kitchen, by any stretch. With organic menu items such as "garlic and feta" or "eggplant and roasted red pepper" pizza, the menu leaves no yuppies behind. Yet neither the rich nor the poor see a price attached to anything.

Instead, all customers see a donation box on the counter. They are asked to consider what the meal was worth and to pay what they can. Those who cannot pay are asked to consider busing tables after dining, or helping in some other way.

Sometimes, families with children are found washing dishes after a classy restaurant meal the parents normally couldn't afford.

Brad and Libby Birky, who opened the cafe last fall, have no system for policing their "pay-at-will or volunteer" system, and they're certain a small fraction of customers dine and dash with no donation of any kind.

But they also know that some customers pay far more than anyone would ask. One man ate a modest meal last fall and quietly left a $500 check in the box.

Another man routinely walks in, refuses to eat and leaves a small cash donation. He's homeless.

"If Jesus ran a restaurant, would he use this model?" asked Brad Birky. "We'd like to think so. Not that we're comparing ourselves to Jesus or his work. We're just inspired by him and his work."

Which might explain why the Birkys welcomed to their new cafe a dirty, smelly vagrant who was living in a park. He became a regular, and then a friend.

"He first came in during the peak of last winter," Brad Birky said in an interview with the Denver Catholic Register, newspaper of the Denver Archdiocese. "He had a snow shovel, which he was using to make a few dollars. He heard about our restaurant and offered to sweep or mop the floors in exchange for hot food. He ate, and then he stayed for an hour and worked."

The man, whom they knew as Kidd, wore four or five coats to survive the winter. Kidd's hair was long and matted, much like his beard. He lived outside by choice, telling the Birkys he didn't relate well to some of the drunks and addicts at Denver's shelters.

He told them he was in Denver temporarily, trying to save up money to get back home to New Orleans and re-establish himself. He asked for nothing but food, and always worked for an hour after lunch.

"Then one day a very well-dressed man walked into the restaurant and acted like he knew the place," Brad Birky said. "He was clean-shaven and looked quite professional. He acted like he knew me, but I had never seen him. He smiled and said: 'You know me.' Then it struck me."

The sharply dressed man was Kidd. He had saved up money from shoveling snow, bought new clothes and a bus ticket home to New Orleans, and cleaned himself up for the trip.

"He came in to say thanks, and to say goodbye. He was on his way home to make a success of his life," Brad Birky said.

Brad, 32, and Libby, 30, grew up near Bloomington, Ill. Brad grew up a Mennonite, Libby a Catholic. Both were taught to revere Jesus Christ. The couple met as young adults through mutual friends.

Brad Birky studied to become a computer scientist and Libby Birky earned a master's degree in gifted education. In computer work, he made good money and the couple was on the path to the perfect upscale life.

"It wasn't fulfilling," Brad Birky said. "It just wasn't what we were supposed to be doing with our lives. We had both been raised with the notion that we should give back and be involved in the community."

In 2002 the Birkys moved to Denver and volunteered at the Catholic Worker House. Off hours, Brad Birky attended culinary school at Metropolitan State College. Then they came up with the idea that became their cafe.

The Birkys put about $50,000 into establishing the not-for-profit cafe and it's almost to the point of sustaining itself. Neither takes a paycheck from the cafe, and Libby teaches at Logan School for Creative Learning to pay the bills.

Brad Birky said their model could work for other businesses, such as medical and dental clinics.

"We're having fun and creating a social, fun place to hang out and build community. We absolutely love it," he said.