Pay-What-You-Want Cafes Evolve in Colorado

DENVER, CO — At some groundbreaking Colorado community cafes, guests from all walks of life eat a nourishing, organic meal at a price they can afford. Some guests give little extra, some give a recommended amount, and some volunteer their time in exchange for lunch. The non-profit Pay-What-You-Can cafe business model — with its epicenter in Denver — is evolving as a way to deliver nourishing meals to the hungry in a respectful and dignified setting.

Changes came this summer to two of the cafes. Community cafe pioneers at Denver’s SAME Cafe (So All May Eat) hired an executive director in July. The founders of Fort Collins’ FoCo Cafe (Feeding our Community Ourselves) stepped down and hired a director and new chef in August.

The pay-what-you-can restaurant concept started in 2003 in Salt Lake City. The idea has inspired around 60 restaurants in the U.S. There are three in Colorado.

Some of those new café owners include rock star Bon Jovi and his wife Dorothea, who’ve opened three Jon Bon Jovi’s Soul Kitchen cafes in New Jersey. The Birkys also inspired Panera Bread Founder and CEO Ron Shaich in 2010 to start Panera Cares pay-as-you-wish restaurants, now open in the St. Louis suburbs and Boston.

“The movement as a whole is coming into its own,” said SAME Café founder Libby Birky, a former teacher who started the café with her husband Brad in 2006. “We have helped probably 45 of those 60. [Café hopefuls] have stayed in our basement, and volunteered for weeks and sometime months. We’ve made a lot of mistakes and we want people to learn from them.”

SAME Cafe founder Libby Birky accepts a fresh veggie delivery from Ebi Kondo of Denver Botanic Gardens.

But the concept is not as simple as it sounds, Birky said. Three cafes in Denver, Boulder and Colorado Springs closed within the past five years. Panera Cares scaled back, closing locations in Dearborn, Mich., Portland, Ore. and Chicago.

“The community connections, conversations and relationships are the magic that happens here,” Birky said. “That piece is so essential. When everyone wants a SAME Café in your neighborhood, it’s going to look different and feel different based on customers and community.”

Since 2006, the SAME Café, open from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., has served more than 138,000 organic, locally sourced, fresh lunches at 2023 E. Colfax. There is no set menu, and no set price for a meal. The café has no cash register, but a donation box. Some patrons pay less than cost for their meals, but most pay a fair price, and some pay more. A professional chef and other staff are paid a living wage, but the restaurant also runs on the work of many volunteers.

For 10 years, the Birkys worked “70 hour weeks” Libby said.

“But there were opportunities for growth and expansion, for touching more people, and we said, ‘No thank you,’ because of our personal limitations,” she said. “We realized we were the ones in the way for the growth pattern for the organization.”

SAME Café board members will participate in September in an entrepreneurial Food Access Bootcamp and incubator with Uncharted Institute (formerly the Unreasonable Institute).

The board hired Executive Director Brad Reubendale, a former customer and volunteer with nonprofit experience.

“Right now I’m learning and basically drinking from the firehose,” Reubendale said. Possible expansions of the restaurant could be expanding hours, opening another location or possibly a food truck, he said.

An artist works on a sculpture during lunch at Cafe 180 in Englewood

In Englewood, Café 180, at 3315 S. Broadway, serves healthy pay-as-you-can lunches. Demographics collide during lunch, said Executive Director Sarah Lesyinski. “Englewood has wealthy areas like Cherry Hills and Greenwood Village and then the river area with a large homeless population. There’s Section 8 housing and then gentrification with millennials moving in. Where we opened was intentional,” she said.

Café 180’s umbrella organization One Good Turn also supports a job training catering business and a transitional housing program as well as job training programs in Littleton at a bicycle shop.

Lesyinski has worked with One Good Turn for six years, taking over from founder Catherine Clements.

"I fell in love with café and the way it empowers people," Lesyinski said.

FoCo Cafe Chef Jeremy Trezoglou ladles soup for customers. (Patch Staff)

In Fort Collins, the FoCo Café was opened Thanksgiving day, 2014 by founders Jeff and Kathleen Baumgardner. The Baumgardners spent months observing and volunteering at the SAME Café before opening the doors at 225 Maple St. This summer, the couple retired out of state, and Executive Director Mallory Andrews has taken the helm, along with a new chef, Jeremy Trezoglou.

“The cafe was built off the shoulders of the co-founders, and so many people associate it with them,” Andrews wrote in an email. “Once they are gone, do these people still feel inclined to come back? We do see many of the same customers, but many new ones as well.”

Changes to the restaurant include more creativity in menus, which can feature items such as mixed squash, roasted carrots, spicy tomato pesto soup and apricot bread pudding for dessert.

The pay-as-you-can café world is a tight-knit community working to refine the social experiment.

“I’m meeting with both Mallory and Brad in the next couple of weeks to help them get oriented,” Lesyinski said.

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