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All can gather at this table

Brad and Libby Birky wanted to feed the hungry without setting them apart. At their cafe, customers pay what they can, or not at all.

April 16, 2007|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Denver — IT has been six months since Brad and Libby 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 any of their customers has paid for a bowl of the chicken chili or a slice of the 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. Those who have a bit more are encouraged to drop a little extra in the donations box upfront. Those who can't pay at all are asked to work in the kitchen, dicing onions, scrubbing pots, giving back any way they can.

The Birkys could probably feed more hungry people, with far less effort, by donating the cash they spend on groceries to a homeless shelter.

That's not the point.

"It's not just the food," Libby says. "Often, homeless people, people in need, don't receive the same attention and care. Here, someone recognizes them, looks them in the eye, talks to them like they're just as valuable as the next person in line. That's why we do this."

Brad has turned away several panhandlers. He's not rolling pizza dough for four hours a day to give handouts. He and Libby aim to build a community in the SAME Cafe, one that draws in bankers and students and women living on the streets in double layers of clothes. They want their small space to fill with conversation -- and with fellowship.

On this warm spring afternoon, James Duncan, 44, pedals up to the cafe and locks his bike to a banged-up rack. His T-shirt is ringed with sweat; his hair is matted.

But Libby lights up when she sees him, abandoning her post at the sudsy kitchen sink to perch on a chair beside him. She's been meaning to ask his opinion on the Dixie Chicks documentary.

They haven't chatted long before another regular comes in, an older woman with brassy black hair who has introduced herself to the Birkys simply as Dee. "What about that hat?" Dee squeals, laughing at Libby's boxy chef's cap.

"I have these silly bangs and they're getting in my face," Libby explains. Dee pulls up a chair next to James and they're off, marveling at how young people these days like the oddest music. "The other day, the band over there was 'Saliva,' " Dee says, nodding across the street at a seedy lounge.

Abruptly, Dee stops talking and peers into James' bowl. "What kind of soup is that?"

"Potato," he answers, and pushes the bowl toward her. "Try some! Try some!"

She dips in her spoon. "How did I miss that?"

"You want a cup?" Libby asks, jumping up.

Until she discovered the cafe, Dee lived on instant noodles and cold cereal, with a fast-food burger now and then for a treat. Now she lunches in the cafe at least four times a week (and Libby often packs her a meal to take home). When she can, Dee pays $3 or $4. When she can't, she mops the floor. Today, she has money, and lingers over Libby's sugar cookies.

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

BRAD, 31, and Libby, 30, came up with the concept for the cafe as a way to help the hungry while letting Brad indulge his passion for cooking. Friends told them they were crazy. But the Birkys began scouring online auctions for secondhand restaurant gear.

They paid off their car -- they figured if they went broke, they'd at least have something to their name. They drew up a financial plan. Several prospective landlords took one look and turned them away.

"It was a very alternative business model," Brad says, grinning. "It took some convincing."

To make their case, the Birkys pointed to the success of the One World Cafe in Salt Lake City, which has been serving up organic food on the pay-what-you-can philosophy since 2003. Its founder, Denise Cerreta, helped the Birkys map a start-up strategy, including applying for nonprofit status and setting up a board of directors.

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