Over and over the Birkys saw many of the same kind of people coming in and out of the soup kitchen—those who were not actively trying to make changes in their lives. They were also very discouraged with the quality and lack of variety of food being served. Out of these initial thoughts came the idea of a nonprofit restaurant that would be founded on treating people with respect and serving them with dignity. Not only would their organization target a niche market that was “slipping through the cracks,” as Libby put it, but it would serve meals made with the highest quality ingredients and give people a choice about what they wanted to eat.
“There’s this idea, in America, that it’s okay to donate things that aren’t good,” said Libby. “We have high standards in both cleanliness and food.”
SAME Café, which the Birkys opened a little over four years ago, is a restaurant run entirely on donations that has served over 60,000 meals since inception. It operates on what Brad and Libby call a “pay-what-you-can-afford” model and provides gourmet meals made from fresh, seasonal, organic ingredients that are bought from local farmers and wholesalers to those who need a little help getting by.
After reading about the work the Birkys were doing, the Student Leadership Experience team decided that this was something its Scholars had to see during their Winter Weekend in early February (click here to read more about the retreat). And the Birkys, eager to share their passion for food and philanthropy, were more than happy to open their doors a little earlier than usual, serve 30+ college students breakfast, and spend their morning telling Scholars about what it is they do.
Brad and Libby take their high standards beyond a sanitary environment and a good meal. They are careful to tread lightly when it comes to their carbon footprint and choose to serve food in small portions so as to reduce waste. Patrons are always encouraged to come back for seconds if they did not get enough.
The “pay-what-you-can-afford” model allows those who eat at SAME Café to drop whatever they can in the donation box or give of their time by volunteering to help prepare, serve, or clean. This system has allowed the patrons of SAME Café to develop a sense of place and belonging, and Brad and Libby said that about 80 percent of those who come to eat are regulars, stopping by once or twice a month.
“It’s a community,” said Brad. “It’s not just a restaurant.”
This Saturday morning trip to SAME Café was not the first time for one of the SLE Scholars. Meral Sarper, a student from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, had been to SAME Café many times before, but she was no less interested in what the Birkys had to say that morning. She not only told her peers how much she loved the food and the idea behind SAME Café, but she was one of the first to raise her hand and ask Brad and Libby pointed questions, like if there was a moment that they knew this was what they wanted to do.