The restaurant where you pay what you can

To find out what recent customers paid for meals at the SAME Cafe, go to

The first thing Brad Birky does is hand me an apron.

"Would you mind starting on soup duty?" he asks, guiding me toward two large industrial cookers near the front counter. "This is tomato corn bisque, and this is lentil."

The lunch rush is just starting at So All May Eat (SAME) Cafe, and soon I'm ladling steaming servings of soup into a mismatched collection of bowls and mugs. With me behind the counter are three more volunteers preparing pizza and dishing out salad and cookies to the growing line of customers, a cross-section of East Colfax Avenue foot traffic: latter-day flower children, sunburned day laborers, older women in librarian attire, laptop-toting students, professional bums, khaki-wearing businesspeople, vegan-core punker kids and the general miscellany of society that never appears in restaurant-industry demographics.

SAME has a menu that changes daily but always features food that's made from scratch and is largely organic. It has tables, chairs, bus bins, plants in the windows and overhead music (usually a mix of classic rock). But there's one thing SAME doesn't have: a cash register. There's no credit-card machine, no change drawer, no receipt book. That's because SAME doesn't have prices. Diners come in and order — some ask for just a cup of soup or a small slice of pizza, while others go for a whole meal, maybe even seconds if they're really hungry — and then pay what they want.

The concept is the exact opposite of Denver Restaurant Week, now under way, in which more than 200 restaurants in the metro area are offering a meal for the set price of $52.80 for two. DRW's goal is to entice diners to eat out more by removing the uncertainty of the final tab.

After only an hour behind the counter at SAME, I can pick out the new customers the minute they step in the door. Their eyes seek out numbers, first falling on the handwritten menu board, then drifting along the counter, searching for a printed menu with prices. Before puzzlement becomes full-blown confusion, Brad usually steps in.

"Is this your first time here?"

"Yes," says a young couple, him with a beard and her with an extra-long scarf. "We just moved into a place down the street."

"Okay," says Brad. "So we're a non-profit restaurant. We operate on a pay-what-you-want model. So we have no set prices. We let our customers pick what they want to eat and then pay afterward, however much they wish. If you can't pay anything, then we ask you to volunteer an hour helping in the cafe."

"Oh," both members of the couple reply. "Okay. Cool." They glance at each other to make sure it really is cool, then place their orders and make their drink selections from a choice of coffee, tea, iced tea or water. Brad hands each of them a small orange envelope with the number of their order.

After customers have eaten, they will put their payment in these envelopes, which then go through the slit of a small wooden box. That's the high technology upon which this business rests. The cafe will serve 55 people over a three-hour period today — a stat that multiplies out to roughly 15,000 customers a year. Some pay less than their share, some pay more, some pay nothing at all. And yet somehow it all works out.

Libby Birky still remembers the reactions of their families when she and Brad first confessed their desire to open a restaurant with no prices. Behind the smiles, the words of support and the offers of assistance were looks of deep concern. Friends were intrigued but skeptical. Loan officers and government officials were a bit more blunt. "They told us we were crazy. In those exact words," she says. And maybe they were a little crazy. It was the kind of utopian, half-baked, vaguely Boulder-ish concept you'd expect from old hippies or naive undergrads with more money than brains, not a pair of young professionals raised in the rural Midwest.

Central Illinois, to be precise. The town closest to the farm where Brad grew up had a population of 900. His family is Mennonite, which is like being Amish but with less old-timey hats and butter-churning, and with more social-justice work among worldly folk. Libby lived thirty miles away in a town that was a bit more cosmopolitan — it had a small college — but was still removed from the complexities of urban life. She went to a Catholic elementary school and a Catholic high school and spent summers on missions building houses for the less fortunate. After her freshman year at a Catholic college upstate, she met Brad through a mutual friend. They clicked. Not only did they share similar backgrounds, but their family setup was identical: dad in construction, mom working in the schools, brother, sister.

Brad and Libby married in 1998 and moved to a house situated exactly between their two families. Libby was getting her master's in gifted education; Brad was working as an IT consultant. But eventually they grew weary of their familiar surroundings and longed for a bigger city. After visiting Denver for a wedding, they moved here in 2002, found jobs and bought a handsome little place in the Baker neighborhood. Brad still had an itch, though. The IT gigs were bringing home the bacon, but what he really wanted was to cook the bacon, understand what flavors might go with the bacon, and serve the bacon in a way that maybe no one had thought of before. He realized he wanted to be a chef, and enrolled in the two-year culinary program at Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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