At first glance, SAME Café on East Colfax Avenue appears to be just another trendy Denver eatery. Its windows advertise local, seasonal, organic food, and its walls are bedecked in Colorado-made art and suspended houseplants. But walk inside and you’ll see a large black and lime green sign explaining why this restaurant is different: “At SAME Café, you participate how you can for your meal.”

Patrons pay for their food by donating money, sharing homegrown produce, or volunteering 15 minutes to a full day of their time to, say, wash dishes or peel vegetables. “We want to make sure everyone in here knows that they have something of value to contribute to the mission,” says Brad Reubendale, the executive director of SAME, which stands for “so all may eat.” “We’re all in this, and we all have different things that we bring to the table.”

Today, there are 36 cafes in the United States operating with varied pay-what-you-can models, but when Brad and Libby Birky opened SAME in October 2006, the concept was novel. Volunteering at local food justice organizations had shown the couple how few options people experiencing poverty and hunger had for nutritious food and how degrading the experience of asking for help could be. “We just started thinking, There’s gotta be a better way to do this,” says Libby, who was working as a teacher when she and Brad (then in an IT job) began brainstorming their own solution in 2003.

Brad went to culinary school and the couple poured some $25,000 of their life savings and retirement funds into making those musings a reality. The with a simple mission to build community through healthy fare, making an effort to learn customers’ names and food preferences and installing a long communal table so that solo diners could more easily forge connections with one another. In the beginning, they had low expectations for SAME. “If we served a plate of food to one person who needed it, then the restaurant was successful,” Brad says. Word spread and need grew, however, and the cafe quickly exceeded that bar.

Two years after the cafe opened, hunger and homelessness spiked during the 2008 financial crisis, and the Birkys jumped from serving 30 to 40 people a day to well over 100. “It was pretty clear at that point: SAME was in the right place at the right time and was a necessary outlet for all these folks to be able to come and get healthy meals,” Brad says.

Portrait of SAME Café executive director Brad Reubendale
SAME Café executive director Brad Reubendale. Photo by Sarah Banks

By 2017, burnout forced Brad and Libby to enlist others to run SAME in their stead. (They now live in Florida, where they are nonprofit consultants whose clients have included other pay-what-you-can concepts.) One hire was Reubendale, who has more reason to be invested in the organization’s mission than most: While experiencing homelessness for nine months in 2012 and 2013, after he came out as gay and lost his job as a pastor, Reubendale depended on SAME for sustenance.

“It’s been really cool to be able to be on both sides of that counter,” says Reubendale, who has made changes at the cafe based on his experiences. In the past year, the cafe underwent an extensive renovation to follow trauma-informed design, which aims to create spaces that feel safe and welcoming. In addition to being more wheelchair-friendly, SAME avoids elements that might remind people of being institutionalized or other difficult chapters in their lives. Instead of metal chairs (which could be reminiscent of prisons and hospitals) and exposed brick (which many SAME guests have slept against while experiencing homelessness), the space has light gray walls adorned with colorful artwork and wooden tables topped with fresh wildflowers. “We want it to just feel like a restaurant,” says Reubendale, “and we never want anyone to feel like they have to tell us their story to get a meal.”

To that end, diners who don’t take the labor option can choose to pay with cash, check, or card, and a sign above the counter explains that $2 covers the cost of the food, $5 is the average donation, and $12 covers food, staff, and rent. SAME intentionally doesn’t list a “suggested” donation because, Reubendale says, “when I walk in and it’s a suggested donation that I can’t afford, it’s going to make me feel like crap.”

Seventy-four percent of SAME guests live below the poverty line (defined in Denver as an annual income of $33,500 or less for a household of four), and about 22 percent of them eat at SAME every day. Many customers who discovered the restaurant in rough times continue to come back even when things are more stable: 64-year-old Pam Dupèe found SAME about 10 years ago when she lost her job, and then her housing. Although she is no longer experiencing homelessness, Dupèe still regularly eats at SAME, where the healthy fare helps her manage her diabetes and the community aspect adds meaning to her life. At SAME, Dupèe says, “you can contribute, participate, be treated like a human being, and sit down and have a hearty meal. It’s just unheard of.”

On a Tuesday in September, customers streamed through SAME Café’s glass door and lined up at the counter to place their orders. After choosing from two soups, two salads, and two pizzas (all of the six options could be made gluten-free, and three options were prepared vegan), patrons sat themselves in the cheery dining area and waited for a SAME volunteer to deliver their food.

The cafe’s menu changes daily, as it is heavily dependent upon the produce it gets from area farms, including its two biggest benefactors, Ekar Farms near Lowry and Denver Botanic Gardens. Other local companies—Pablo’s Coffee, Teatulia, Leprino Foods, Altius Farms—often contribute provisions, and notable chefs have rallied behind SAME as well. Jeff Osaka, the James Beard Award–nominated chef at Osaka Ramen in Denver, Sushi-Rama’s four metro-area locations, and the Empire Lounge in Louisville, has donated excess food and kitchenware to SAME and recently participated in a SAME Table video series fundraiser with four other local chefs.

That community support has become even more critical during the pandemic. In 2020, demand increased, public health restrictions required the restaurant to shift to a to-go model, and SAME partnered with Denver Human Services to supply food to families in need. During the year, the restaurant served nearly 30,000 meals—the most in its 15-year history, up from about 20,000 in 2019.

Through it all, SAME has maintained its commitment to serving food that looks as good as it tastes—an important part of the cafe’s mission to nourish its patrons with a side of dignity. “I always say it needs to look Instagrammable, even if you don’t put it on Instagram,” Reubendale says. “That’s an experience that anyone with means gets every time they go out to a nice restaurant. Our guests often never have that experience except here.”

(Read more: Colorado’s Harvest Farm Battles Addiction and Homelessness in Unexpected Ways)