SAME Café, bigger impact

Photo credit: Courtesy Hanna Quevedo Romero

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By Tim Belter ’13
September 2, 2011

Going from teaching to running the charitable, pay-what-you-can restaurant may seem like quite a leap, but to Libby Birky M.A.’02, it was more akin to simply switching schools.

“People ask me if I miss teaching, and I say I still teach every day,” said Birky. “The only difference is that my classroom looks a little different and my students look a little different.”

Birky and her husband, Brad, opened the SAME Café in Denver, Colo., in October 2006. The café’s guiding philosophy is presented in the name, an acronym for “So All May Eat.” The café’s menu lists few items and no prices. Patrons are free to pay whatever and however they are able. The café accepts cash, checks and credit cards, but those who lack the money to pay can work for their meal by wiping tables or sweeping the floor.

The couple formed the idea for the restaurant shortly after Birky received a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction at Bradley. They moved to Colorado, where Birky became a teacher at the Logan School for Creative Learning and Brad worked as a computer programmer. Brad soon cut his hours to part-time and entered culinary school.

The couple wanted to find ways to serve their community, and they reflected on their time working together in soup kitchens in Peoria. They remembered how difficult it was for the underprivileged to eat healthy foods on a budget and how hard it was for the soup kitchens to serve nutritious food to their patrons. The idea for a community-oriented café focused on healthy foods sprang from there.

At first, they had some difficulty getting their idea off the ground. “Banks essentially laughed at us,” said Birky, and the couple were not even sure the pay-what-you-can concept would be legal. They persisted, however, and they saved their money and accepted donations from family and friends until they were able to open the restaurant.

Now, after almost five years, the café has not only survived, but has become an essential fixture of the community. The Birkys build a relationship with every person who walks into the café, and those personal connections have brought in a diverse clientele, from homeless patrons to affluent businesspeople.

The success of the concept has brought in a lot of media attention, as well. The SAME Café has been featured in outlets like “Ladies’ Home Journal,” “Reader’s Digest” and “NBC Nightly News.”

The media attention has been “kind of crazy,” Birky said. “It’s overwhelming in a great way.”

That interest has led other cafés with similar concepts to start up across the country. Panera Bread started three Panera Cares cafés after the company’s CEO saw the SAME Café on NBC News.

“It is really inspiring and exciting and heartwarming,” Birky said of seeing the café’s concept spread. “We can’t feed everyone,” she said, but with each new person that takes up their mission, they get one step closer.

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