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In Denver, SAME Cafe may be ultimate example of sharing economy

SAME Cafe in Denver serves great food and a healthy helping of humanity in its pay-what-your-can cafe.

Libby and Brad Birky are taking Labor Day weekend off.

I can't think of people who deserve it more.

In researching the sharing economy of Denver for stories on how that peer-to-peer experience is changing travel, I heard about the Birkys and their restaurant, SAME (So All May Eat) Café from Becky Creighton, who runs Culinary Connectors. She told me not to miss it.

She briefly explained what SAME does: serves lunch daily except Sundays to anyone. You pay what you can and if you can't pay, you can do a little work.

This may be the ultimate example of the sharing economy, the movement that emphasizes letting others use what you have, whether it's a car, an extra room or expertise. Some critics say it's about putting dollars in your pocket by sharing what you have; proponents say it's a way of making connections.

The cute café on Colfax away from the exposed-brick-gentrifying downtown of Denver is clearly the latter. SAME has some outdoor seating, some inside, where the décor is plain but welcoming; tables had small vases of flowers.

What struck me, though, was how many people were greeted by name as they walked in. 

“We really feel like there’s a dignity…when you know somebody’s name,” Libby Birky said in an interview later. Some of these folks clearly were down on their luck, but everybody was treated like a friend.

You won't find prices at SAME; you will find a donation box at the front, and I quickly slipped in mine as the folks behind the counter turned out perfectly formed pizza. That, coupled with salad and soup, made for a hearty meal.

I grabbed a table by myself, filled a tumbler with water, devoured my lunch. The grub was good (it lived up to the promise of the sign in front that calls the food "local, organic, healthy and yummy.") The vibe was better. Clearly, this is a place that gives great comfort besides great food.

Libby Birky told me that sometimes SAME serves as a café, sometimes as a clearinghouse, sometimes as place to give or receive counsel.

“I feel sometimes the way bartenders feel,” she said, as people open up and talk. “We tend to at least help people with resources and referrals.”

Libby and Brad both come from families that value service to the community, she said. They had the idea for the café—both were involved in other careers—and decided one of them needed to go to culinary school. “So we kind of flipped a coin,” she said. Brad won.

They had started out thinking their eatery would be fine dining and then quickly realized that wouldn’t match the comfort level of the population they wanted to serve. They toned it down and are now have a diverse mix that she described this way:  “Young artists, college-age kids, musicians or art majors, homeless [people] living in their car, the young family that has little kids and the business person in a suit.”

Other eateries are doing similar things, she told me, including Panera through its Panera Cares program and Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, N.J. 

East or West, the days are long and the work takes dedication.

But Libby Birky sounds as though she is the one who’s on the receiving end. “Food is universal,” she said. “Everyone eats [and it] connects all life events across lots of culture.

"That we get to share in that is an almost sacred event. It is really a beautiful part of this.”

The sign in front of the café says, “Have lunch with us. It’s ‘wonderfully different.’”

Especially if you’re hungry for a helping of humanity at its best.

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Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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