Award-winning SAME Café Serves Up Food and Dignity
The Denver Metro Chamber's Small Nonprofit of the Year lets patrons trade time for food
Small Nonprofit of the Year
Winner: SAME Café
SAME Café is a restaurant on Denver’s East Colfax Avenue where people can donate time, money or produce for a healthy, locally sourced lunch. SAME – it stands for “So All May Eat” – is founded on the belief that everyone should have access to healthy food, regardless of ability to pay.
“Dignity is at the center of it,” says Letisha Steele, operations officer and chef, who grew up in poverty in the Appalachian Mountains with a single mom. “When you grow up experiencing poverty, you understand that a lot of people base your worth on what you look like or the neighborhood you live in. We want everyone who comes in to have a dignified experience, to know they have value to know that they are seen.”
Brad and Libby Birky founded SAME Café in 2006. When they decided to step away from day-to-day operations about 2 ½ years ago, they hired Brad Reubendale as executive director. Steele was already in place.
Multiple menu options are a notable aspect of the operation: two soups, two salads and two pizzas. “We do that intentionally so people have a choice when they come in,” Reubendale says. “Because a lot of times, choice is one of those privileges that comes with money, and you don’t get that if you’re experiencing homelessness or poverty. You have to take what you’re given.”
Diners at SAME Café order off the menu, and when their meal arrives they are asked, “How would you like to participate for your meal?”
“They can either donate with a credit card, check or cash, or write their name down and sign up for a task on the spot,” Reubendale says.
SAME Café has partnered with several local farms and other organizations in the Denver area, and the menu varies depending on what produce is available.
“The food really is exceptional,” Reubendale says. “It’s the best food you’ve ever had."
And the great thing is, the menu changes every day based on what’s in season and what’s in stock. Letisha and her staff create a menu every morning based on what we have in our refrigerators. Most of our produce is donated, and then they just do magic with these vegetables.”
Donations of time for diners who opt to pay that way may include helping out in the kitchen, helping process the produce that arrives from local farms, busing tables or cleaning.
“Really anything that needs to be done,” Steele says. “We just really want people to be able to participate and feel like they do have a purpose, that everyone does have something they can do that’s beneficial to us.”
Recent additions to SAME Café’s model include a food truck for deliveries of “healthy grain bowls” to some of Denver’s food deserts, and a formalized job-training program.
“Our goal in the next few years is to launch another site in Denver to be able to see whether it’s transferable from our location to another,” Reubendale says. From there, he envisions a franchise-type model.
“So if you want to start a SAME Café in Milwaukee or Detroit, we can say, ‘Here’s how you make it sustainable,’” Reubendale says. “We’ve actually inspired over 60 other restaurants around the country to have a pay-what-you-can model — with varying degrees of success. We’ve been around almost 13 years, and we’ve clearly shown we can be sustainable.”
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