Thursday, February 7, 2013

SAME As It Ever Was

Article by David Scott
Photos by Lucia De Giovanni
      Tucked into a simple storefront on East Colfax is SAME, the little cafe that's quietly revolutionizing the restaurant business. Prices aren't listed on any menu; customers simply pay what they can afford, for an array of gourmet organic dishes that has foodies across the country cheering. SAME (an acronym for So All May Eat) invites everyone: neighborhood hipsters, affluent couples, and the city's homeless to dine with dignity from a menu that's regional, seasonal and sustainable.
Bring Me Your Tired, Your Weary
SAME Cafe, at 2023 East Colfax, serves anyone for whatever they can pay.
      Only one other restaurant in the country, One World Cafe in Salt Lake City, applies the pay-what-you-can model. "It's futuristic," says Butch Mrsny, a liberally tattooed tattooist who works across the street. Futuristic in that it integrates giving and brotherly love, tenets as old as the homilies, into modern business practice. A wooden donation box sits inconspicuously by the pickup counter. Diners set their own price, and can pay before, during or after their meal. "We don't want people to have to admit they're down on their luck," says Brad Birky, half of the husband-and-wife team behind SAME. "When you walk into a place, you shouldn't have to feel uncomfortable and have your head down, asking if you can get a bite." Does he think some people might take advantage of this generosity, showing up for three squares a day and contributing little? He shrugs, "we have faith in people's sense of fairness and their desire to help people around them." Many customers put a little extra into the box to cover someone who may not have as much.
      The pay-what-you-want paradigm has been employed recently by mavericks in other industries as well, including the English art-rock outfit Radiohead. Their new album "In Rainbows" was originally released via their website and sold for whatever fans wanted to pay. In spite or because of this, "In Rainbows" has become the band's best-selling album to date, for the first time landing them at the number one spot on the U.S. Billboard 200. That this economic model is working for SAME Cafe is evidenced by the construction noises next door, where contractors are building out an additional dining room that will double the dining room's seating capacity. SAME is now in its third year of business, a milestone by which half of all new restaurants have already failed. And overhead is kept low by staffing exclusively with volunteers such as Nina Healy, one of three friends who volunteer at SAME regularly. "All the volunteers are so appreciated," she beams. "And the customers, too, are treated with a great deal of respect."


The Unbearable Lightness of Being
Owners Brad and Libby Birky worked in I.T. and teaching, respectively, before deciding to open a restaurant.
      "We don't want a bunch of employees," co-owner Libby Birky says. "Otherwise there wouldn't be anything for people to do when they want to exchange work for food. We don't hire dishwashers, there isn't someone paid to come in and prep the pizza dough..." Instead, they ask that those who can't afford a donation contribute an hour's work. A devil's advocate might question the safety of inviting people off the street to come in and handle food. Especially on a street like East Colfax, where dirt and trouble are ubiquitous. But Health Department guidelines are followed closely and often exceeded, and all the cooks start out doing secondary jobs like wiping down tables and sweeping up. Only after they've proven themselves are they allowed to prep food, and always with rubber gloves. Until then, Mrs. Birky jokes, "we don't know you. We don't know what you're gonna do when you get a knife in your hand!" Sitting at a window table during a typically packed lunch, the Birkys chat amiably with a reporter, occasionally breaking off to greet their regulars. Mr. Birky smiles at an older couple in tattered clothes making their way out. "Hi, Patrick, everything going alright?" he asks. Their careworn faces light up. "Yeah, I had a little accident, though. My shoulder," Patrick says, bracing himself against the doorjamb. "Well, stay out of the hospital, it's gonna start getting slick out there."
Garcon? Check, Please!
SAME Cafe dispenses with the formalities.
      In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a shark, casually munching on a human arm, says, "I'm trying to eat more locals." It suggests that everyone is jumping on the green bandwagon, from mom-and-pop shops to corporate behemoths like Wal-Mart. For these businesses, going sustainable is not merely a grand philosophy, it also positively impacts the bottom line. By one estimate, transporting one calorie of spinach from Florida to Denver takes 17 calories of energy. The old-style supply chain is a carbon-heavy orgy of freezing, trucking, storage and handling. This wasted energy helps explain why the movement toward regional ingredients has reached a tipping point. Colorado restaurants like Duo, Z Cuisine and The Kitchen have become leaders in the sustainability movement. They use locally sourced produce, grains and meats, while observing fair labor practices and eschewing hormones and pesticides. But SAME Cafe takes the notion of farm-to-table to the logical extreme: vegetables that were in the ground five hours ago become soup fodder for today's lunch. And with increased market demand, Mr. Birky says, "more farms are popping up around Denver, and the price is coming down." In fact, the $20 they spend per week with a local organic farmer yields 50 percent of their produce.

And These Are Sundried Tomatoes...
Volunteer Nina Healy found out about the cafe through her running group.
      The menu revolves around dishes like soup, pizza and salad, and varies daily according to what's on hand and in season. Autumn has brought butternut squash soup, a broccoli-avocado salad, and an apple-pecan bleu cheese pizza. Not exactly the stuff of handouts. "We both started out volunteering in soup kitchens," Mrs. Birky says. "and the food was just so bland. I don't want to serve anything here that I wouldn't eat myself." The Birkys both grew up in comfortable homes, and see it as their obligation to help the community. And with that come certain karmic rewards. "We see that in action here in the cafe regularly," Mr. Birky says. A customer ambles up to the table and interjects: "This man is a saint," he says warmly of the proprietor. Wizened and nattily dressed, he looks like a modern-day Miles Davis. "This man is a saint, and he's gonna be famous. We all gonna be famous," he smiles slyly. He may be on to something.

Illustrated Man
Tatooist Butch Mrzny likes the vibe at SAME Cafe. "It's real," he says.

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