On one of Denver's busiest streets, in one of its most interesting neighborhoods, stands SAME Café. The restaurant may be called SAME, but inside the door, it's definitely different.
There is a menu, but no prices are listed. Instead of a cash register by the front door, there is a donation box. The reason is spelled out in the restaurant's name.
"SAME means 'So All May Eat,'" explains Brad Birky, who owns the café with his wife Libby. He says the name and the mission were inspired by the couple's experience volunteering in traditional shelters and soup kitchens.
"There was definitely a lack of personal interaction, and we really missed that," he recalls. "We were there and we were volunteering to the men or women or whoever was coming through, but there wasn't a place where you could sit down and talk to them. You couldn't really hear their stories.
"A lot of times, that's what was missing. People want to talk. They want to tell their story. They want a friend."
So when the Birkys decided to open their own restaurant, they knew they wanted something different.
Fostering involvement by design
SAME Café has an open design, allowing the people working behind the counter and those sitting at tables to talk to each other.
"There's no built-in separation," Birky points out, "No 'us' and 'them.'"
In fact, you can't even tell who is paying for a meal and who isn't. The customers come from all walks of life - from corporate lawyers to homeless street people and everywhere in between. And, says Birky, the same variety of patrons volunteer.
"We don't ask people why they want to volunteer. We don't say, 'Do you want to volunteer for food, or do you just want to volunteer for fun?' We don't distinguish between those two."
And, he adds, a lot of people pay for their food and volunteer as well.
"There were some folks in here earlier today. They walked in to have lunch, but they saw we were having a little dish trouble, so they both jumped up and started helping, and once we were caught up, then they sat down and had their meals, and they paid and left."
A personal investment in a vision
Brad and Libby Birky began SAME Café in 2006 with no money and very little experience in running a restaurant. When they approached banks for money to start a restaurant that had a menu with no prices and that allowed its customers to pay whatever they wanted to, "…they kind of nicely laughed us out the door!" Birky says with a chuckle. So they opened their restaurant using their own money.
"We really thought and believed and have found it to be true, that we are supported just by the donation box. The people who come in and pay for their meals and help - by either contributing through payment or through volunteering - will help keep this place sustainable."
That has allowed them to pay their rent, utilities and food bills, and - as of late last year - salaries.
"I recently became an actual employee of the café instead of just a volunteer," Birky admits, listing his duties: acting kitchen manager, volunteer coordinator, head chef, chief bottle washer, everything.
A community of openness
The philosophy of SAME Café is as important as the food. That makes a difference to Caroline Schultz, who works nearby and often has lunch here.
"I think the biggest impact the restaurant has is just raising awareness helping people to realize that we are connected and we do live in a community and that we can support each other."
And SAME Café is a community, Birky insists, not a soup kitchen.
"It's not a soup kitchen because it's not just homeless people or people who don't have anything. It's for everybody. Besides that, there's also the aspect of people just interacting with each other and learning more about society other than the small sphere they might be comfortable in. It's a community of openness.
"People walk in here, oftentimes they'll start talking to the people at the next table, get to know one another, make new friends they maybe would never have met in any other place. But they met here because they both had a common interest in the food, or a common interest in the model here, or maybe they just wanted to talk to somebody, just needed a friend."
Birky says his café's success proves this model works, and he'd like to see it applied to other neighborhood businesses.