A Restaurant Where You Pay What You Can Afford For The Meal?

by Paul Michael on 26 May 2009 26 comments
Photo: SAME Cafe

It sounds like something out a movie, but it’s actually right out of Denver, my home city. And this wonderful idea is not only incredibly innovative and generous, it’s also working well and making thousands of needy people happy in the process.

So All May Eat Café (SAME Café) was founded by Brad And Libby Birky, a couple who moved to Denver from Illinois. They had worked in various shelters and soup kitchens for eight years before they decided to take a chance and open SAME Café. They paid off their car, saved up around $30,000 and then sank it all into one of the most amazing café’s in America, if not the world.

The principal is simple; pay what you can. The menu in SAME Café suggests prices for certain meals, but they are simply that – suggestions. Examples included $5-$15 for a complete meal (which is cheap even on the high end) and around $3 - $6 for one course, such as soup. For those with enough money to pay a decent amount for their meal, it’s a guideline. For starving musicians and artists, homeless people or anyone else down on their luck, the meal could cost a buck or even a few cents.

If you have no money at all, no problem. You can work off your meal in the kitchen washing dishes, clearing tables, mopping floors, peeling vegetables, whatever you can do to pay back what you have just ate. It’s the kind of payment plan that gives people a real sense of worth. It’s not a soup kitchen, it’s not charity, but it is the most flexible and humanitarian restaurant out there.

It’s not only the concept that is fresh though. Brad and Libby Birky have put an emphasis on healthy food, like fresh organic fruit and vegetables. Many of the people who come in for a bite to eat at SAME Café haven’t seen these items for a long time (and in this economy, a burger is cheaper than a handful of fresh broccoli). And although the menu changes daily, you are guaranteed two types of pizza, soup, salad and a homemade dessert.

As you can imagine, Brad and Libby already know they won’t exactly get rich with this kind of venture, but as their volunteering background suggests, they are in this for people ( to be exact, the beauty and grace of feeding people), not money. And the last I heard, they were applying for non-profit status.

Brad has been quoted as saying "everybody should be able to have a good, healthy meal, whether they can afford it or not." I tip my hat to you Brad, and your wife Libby. In times when capitalism is king, you have both risen above it to do something truly special and unique.

For those of you in the Denver area, SAME Café is located at 2023 E. Colfax Ave., between Race and Vine streets. Opening hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday and Monday. Payment is cash or check, no credit cards.

You can also check out their website: http://www.soallmayeat.org

UPDATE: Brad Birky was kind enough to get in touch with me and point out a few changes to SAME Café. First, as you can see from the verbiage that's been crossed out, there are no longer suggestions for meal prices. Brad and Libby felt that the suggested prices put too much pressure on people to donate a particular amount. And second, SAME Café now has offical not-for-profit (501c3) status, which is great news.
 

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Guest's picture

A lot of people don't believe that human beings are decent people who won't abuse the system just because someone lets them.

Establishments like this are proving this theory wrong day after day, and I wish them the best of luck! Hopefully, more people jump on the bandwagon and return to a more "human" approach to doing business.

This is great.

Guest's picture

I like this idea a lot.

Similar (but different), I am reminded of a restaurant in Montréal: Robin des Bois (Robin Hood) where the majority of the staff are volunteer, and all profit goes to supporting community charities.

Tis a swanky establishment, and the food is top notch. (I gather "head chef" is one of their paid positions.)

Guest's picture

I do love this idea too. I wish to have the opportunity to test this restaurant one day

Guest's picture
Amanda

We have similar community-run restaurants here in Melbourne (Australia) - the staff in them are usually disadvantaged youth learning to become chefs. It works really well actually - their statistics show that most people will usually pay above and beyond what the meal was actually worth - anywhere between $20 and $30. The theory is that people will pay more because it's going towards a good cause - helping the disadvantaged with their patronage.

Guest's picture
Kate

I was going to post this very thing :)

http://www.lentilasanything.com/

Guest's picture

What a lovely story. I applaud this couple's generosity and clever idea. I hope it works out well for them.

Guest's picture
Chris

Personally I would have priced it at a minimum. Food costs plus a percentage of overhead to ensure the place stays in business. No one had a problem with someone making a few bucks but unfortuantely eventually this will get abused (especially with the economy where it is). I hope I am absolutely wrong but I am cynical enough already...

Guest's picture
Cidre

Yeah, ditto on this. Maybe I'm cynical too, but I know too many cheap and/or trashy people who would use this as an excuse to get free food and/or lowball it ridiculously.

There should be a minimum of at least a few dollars for sure. I'm sure the waitstaff/owners will come to realize just who is ACTUALLY in need vs. those who are just cheap.

Guest's picture
Guest

We also have a restaurant like that here in Spokane, WA. I think they got the idea from the guys in CO :)

http://www.oneworldspokane.com/

Guest's picture

Maybe it's because I just finished reading Atlas Shrugged, but this idea just kind of bugs me. Call me heartless, but define "need"? Of course, they'll do OK financially because some people will pay way more (as in most "donation" based businesses), but the "pay what you can afford" principle just rubs me the wrong way. Am I the only one?

Guest's picture
noetic

Powered by Tofu: I'm somewhat with you.

Although ideas like this are always great feel-good stories, real life doesn't work this way. The nature of a free-market society is taking advantage of every deal you can get, and exploiting the system to a ruthless level.

That being said, it is always interesting to see how these kinds of projects develop. They say a lot about the culture of the community.

Guest's picture
David

I'm reading this thinking, "Great! Someone who chose to help people over making money! There should be more of this!" Then I look at the comments and am pretty shocked. How could someone be "bugged" and "rubbed the wrong way" by something like this? It's not YOUR money, it's not taxpayer money paying for this, it's the owners of the kitchen. If they made a bad business decision, that's all on them. I'm sure, as one of the other commenters pointed out, that some people end up paying more because they know it's helping their fellow man. Because of this, perhaps costs are covered, which since this is trying to be a non-profit, is all they are really looking for. Does it also rub these same people the wrong way when a church has a banquet for the homeless, or is that also just unnecessary, and shame on the church for not utilizing our capitalist system to its maximum? Yes, people may abuse the restaurant, but that must not happen often enough, and it looks like if they can't pay enough they have to work off the rest of it. Sounds fair to me...ugh, anyway, rant over.

Guest's picture

No worries, I was just sharing my opinion. As I said, it's not a bad business model, because some people will give more. In fact, I like the idea of people working for their meal! It's the zero value exchange part that "bugs me". I personally feel that in order to truly help people you need to have an exchange of value (in money or time or anything) and not just hand outs.

Cheers!

Guest's picture
Numbers

Not necessarily a new idea... it's been done before and it has failed, or is failing where ever it has been implemented. Really, it seems like such a thoughtful thing, but a horrible business model ... the notion that you might just get a true peek at the heart of humanity -- due to the idea that people who can afford a meal, but are given a choice of paying what they want --seem to pay more. It's all great... right up until people set out on taking advantage move in --

The idealist in me ...wishes them success, as well as helping people along the way-- but the cynic says, uh no, they don't have a chance of making it.

Guest's picture
Astonished

I am beyond surprised at all the negative comments. SAME has been open for 2.5 years, and they are still going strong. They have many more customers now that the economy is bad, but their model seems to be working just fine. I don't know them personally, but I can imagine that they live a happy and fulfilled life, making enough money. Can you imagine what it's like waking up every day knowing you will change lives and make people happy? Sure there are people who might exploit this, but there seems to be many more who would support and help, and keep coming back to help some more. You need to be optimistic about these things. I believe that people are intrinsically good, they only learn to be nasty and manipulative from their environment. If the environment changes, most "bad" people will change too.

Guest's picture
Val

This is awesome and I love to hear that there are others around the world. I would love to be involved in this kind of business and would certainly eat there (and pay what I feel the meal is worth, plus what I can afford on top). 2.5 years being open is pretty significant, especially with the negative mindset of many Americans (considering over a 1/3 of the comments are negative or cynical).

Guest's picture
JerryC

I have to applaud this idea but also have to join the cynics. How long before word spreads to all the deadbeats and riff-raff. Mostly though, I am concerned about the raid by the health department. There must be some regulation. In Oregon, you cannot work in a restaurant without a food handlers card and I doubt that those who visit this establishment with no money to pay can be washing dishes without a health card of some sort. Personally, I really don't want some unwashed, homeless ( I resisted using the word "bum") washing the dishes I will be eating from.
With all that said, I sure hope it all work out! It's such an awesome dream.

Guest's picture
Guest

The principle is simple. The principle.

Guest's picture
Pixie

I think the key thing here is that the food is *not* free. If you can't afford to pay, you can choose to work to pay for your meal, making it a barter exchange that reinforces a person's self-worth.

It surprised me how many people are negative about the idea, but they don't seem to get the point. The owners are gaining benefit by knowing each day they're having a positive effect on someone's life. People in a crunch can wash dishes instead of skipping another meal. This isn't charity - this is something more, something that could grow to provide people with the training to be a chef or learn how to manage a non-profit.

There is so much beautiful opportunity in this concept.

Debbie Dragon's picture

What a wonderful thing this couple is doing!  I'm sure that most people who eat at the restaurant really do pay what they can, and I bet they're very grateful for the opportunity to eat a good meal and don't abuse it.  I absolutely love the barter system and think there should be more of that in all purchases/exchanges people make with one another.

I was a little offended by JerryC's comment, but think it probably paints a pretty clear picture of... well.  I'm sure everyone can come to their own conclusion on that. But people who would be offended by a homeless person washing their dishes are not likely to be eating in this restaurant - since they would be able to pay full price somewhere else.  For a restaurant in business more than 2 years, I'd say they've already been inspected by the health department and what do you know? Equal opportunity employers are really out there, and someone who is capable of washing dishes who looks like "riff raff" to someone who is better off financially can feel like more than a deadbeat and "pay" for their meal, even if it is paid through working rather than cash.

Great article, I didn't know restaurants like this existed and am happy to hear that they do!

Guest's picture
Guest

It's awesome to see people who care more about other people than money. I am going to point out, however, that a free market, capitalist system is what makes it possible. In a capitalist society, everyone can choose what to do with their money, whether to keep it, bless others, or anything else. The more a society becomes socialist, the more people are forced to donate (through taxes) to causes they may not support, or may even be strongly opposed to (funding foreign abortions, anyone?). Socialism and communism (two degrees on the same scale) create a more selfish society because everyone tries to get the most from the government rather than trying to be self-reliant. So in my opinion, this is not "rising above capitalism" so much as rising above materialism and bringing out the best of capitalism.

Guest's picture
ender

This is awesome!!
I'm a commie socialist though, so ;)

-end

Guest's picture
Justin

WOW...what a great concept. This world could use a lot more people like Brad & Libby. Their concept of helping everyone will bring them joy and take them many places in life. Kudos to these fine folks.

Guest's picture
Erik

I think we need to stop demonizing capitalism. These restaurant owners have a great concept, but in the article it states that they are applying for non-profit status, which means they will eventually seek private donations from wealthy people who became wealthy from capitalism. They realize that their business model will not sustain itself without the help of donations of others to make up for the shortfall. We tend to forget that the system that funds the thousands of non-profit organizations out there is capitalism.

It's not a crime to make a profit, and not everyone exploits business for profit. Just because there are cases of it on Wall Street doesn't mean that the millions of small business owners earning a large profit are doing in indecently. There are millions of people who help people every day through their for-profit business. Without profit, there are no non-profits.

Guest's picture

and I have met Brad and Libby. They are not just altruistic, but smart, practical people, and so far, their model is working beautifully! They have a great location, wonderful food and I applaud them for figuring out how to put caring into action in a business model. And thanks for writing about them!

Guest's picture
Ashley

Faith in humanity: +50