So All May Eat
Healthy Food for All: Denver Café Founders Tackle Food Access by Letting Customers Pay Whatever They Can
Clif Bar at its heart is a food company. And we’re lucky enough to work with and support some of the most inspiring changemakers in the industry — individuals on their own personal journeys that align with our commitment toward making a healthier and more sustainable food system. This is one of their stories.
Brad and Libby Birky share a lot in common. They both grew up in central Illinois as the middle children of dads who worked in construction and moms who worked in schools. They dated long distance all through college before marrying in 1998 and settling near Peoria, IL. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that they also found shared passions in life.
“We both liked to volunteer,” Libby notes. “We spent five days working at a soup kitchen for men in Peoria and fell in love with it. We started volunteering there every Tuesday night.”
They also learned firsthand the challenges that people in poverty face trying to eat healthy food. The food they served the men at the soup kitchen was donated, a lot of it processed, and the produce often left much to be desired. “If it had been my house, I would have just composted most of what we served,” Libby recalls. “It was really disheartening, really scary.”
When the couple moved to Denver for job and lifestyle reasons in 2002, they started volunteering at the Denver Catholic Worker House. There people in need received fresh, healthy food, made from scratch in a home setting. That spurred Brad and Libby to open the SAME Café (“So All May Eat” Cafe), a donation-based lunch spot where diners “pay-what-you-want” for freshly made, locally-grown organic food that includes two types of pizza, salad, soup, coffee, organic iced tea and shortbread cookies using Libby’s secret family recipe. Most diners — about 75 percent — pay some amount into a donation box for their meals; others work off their meals in the kitchen or dining room.
Founded in 2006, SAME Café is the longest-running pay-what-you-want, aka community café, in the country, one of about 50 such cafes in the United States, according to Brad and Libby. It is structured as a nonprofit, receiving about 20 percent of its funding from grant-makers, including the Clif Bar Family Foundation. Another 30 percent to 50 percent of its money, depending on the year, comes from the donation box. The rest is derived from fundraisers, small local companies and individuals.
SAME Café’s website (www.soallmayeat.org) spells out the restaurant’s mission: “Everyone, regardless of economic status, deserves the chance to eat healthy food while being treated with dignity. Good food for the greater good.” As Libby notes, “Nobody is wearing a name tag saying they’re working for food or putting $2 or $10 in the donation box. Everybody has access to the same menu and same awesome food.”
Libby speaks of a man who came to the restaurant recently with just $1.35 in his pocket. “I asked, ‘Would you mind sweeping the floor and wiping tables?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ For people with no cash,” she said, “we encourage them to work about a half hour in the café. We want it to be a relationship.”
Brad says their customers are “an amazing mix of everybody.” Men and women. All income levels. A lot of elderly on fixed incomes, but also college students and parents with children. He estimates about 30 percent are minorities and that 75 percent of their clientele live at or below the poverty level.
Maybe it’s cosmic payback for the good work they do, but Brad and Libby have had very generous customers over the years who’ve paid well beyond the cost of their meals. The retired nun who placed $100 in the donation box twice a month for several years. The man with a family foundation who dropped off a $15,000 check because he’d heard about the café and just wanted to help.
Still, operating a pay-what-you-want café six days a week, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., that caters primarily to people with limited means, isn’t easy. Making a profit poses challenges. Brad and Libby count on the generosity of local farmers for food donations and wholesale prices. They rely on themselves and a small, mostly volunteer, staff to serve 50-100 people a day (since its inception, the café has served 135,000 meals).
However, the rewards of their work outweigh any obstacles. “The relationships I’ve built here are the reason I keep going,” says Libby. “I have thousands of people who’ve come to the café over the course of 10 years who have touched my life and made me a better person. We want this place to be here for years and years — to provide community-grown, organic food for as long as it’s needed.”