On East Colfax Avenue between Race and Vine streets, an important Denver institution is hiding in plain sight.
Tucked next to cake shop under a modest brown awning — across the street from the flashier lineup of the Lion’s Lair, EOD Tattoo, High Level dispensary and Aladdin Liquors — SAME Café has been quietly feeding people experiencing food insecurity in Denver for more than a decade.
The deal is pretty simple. In exchange for a meal, you can donate your time, money or produce. You give what you can.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Brad Lumpkin and Justin Bookhardt are at SAME to get a meal in exchange for some time in the kitchen. They came to Denver from Chicago and have been working for temp agencies, coming to the café for the last few months for meals. Lumpkin used to be a sous chef, so he’s comfortable spending time in the kitchen.
“Sweet deal,” he said. “It’s a pretty sweet deal.”
Brad and Libby Birky opened SAME Café 11 years ago and in that time, little has changed. The first nonprofit restaurant in Denver, the mission has always been to serve quality meals with respect and dignity. Most of the ingredients are locally sourced — two of its big produce donors are the Denver Botanic Gardens and Ekar Farms — and the daily menus offer multiple choices.
“[The Birkys] were working in soup kitchens and food pantries and they realized that the quality of food was just not good,” said Brad Reubendale, who took over running SAME four months ago. “A lot of times it’s other people’s trash — it’s what people couldn’t use or would have thrown away. So they wanted to have a healthy option for people who have food insecurity … They wanted a dignified space where we could actually serve everyone delicious, amazing food without there being any of the, ‘you have to have this because it’s the only thing we’re serving.’ “
In addition to there being two kinds of everything on the menu each day — two different soups, for example — SAME offers vegan and gluten-free options daily. The space is sunny and welcoming, decorated with flowers and artwork and offering books, games and a computer.
And everyone who steps up to the counter at SAME Café has the same experience, Reubendale says. They’re served their food before staff asks, “How would you like to participate in our community?”
To guide donations, they list some info on a large blackboard: the average donation is $4.70, the cost of food per meal is $1.94 and the total to produce one meal, including food, staff and rent, is $11.80. Customers can also purchase free meal tokens to give to people in need they might pass on the street.
The standard volunteer shift is just 30 minutes, but they have two-and-a-half-hour shifts for anyone looking to do more.
In the kitchen with Lumpkin on that Wednesday afternoon were Maya Short and Sara Cave, students in a class at Rocky Canyon High School in Highlands Ranch that emphasizes experiential learning through volunteering. The pair come to SAME for shifts every Wednesday.
“It’s a cool opportunity to try new things,” Cave said. “I’ve tried so much food that I would have never tried, and it’s really cool to see all the people and interact with them. We’re not really from here, so it’s nice to meet people in a different community than where we live.”
“One of the things SAME Cafe does really well is it doesn’t just give you an opportunity to have a healthy and sustainable meal, you get to build really cool relationships,” Short added. “Everyone I’ve met here, they’re people that I will hopefully keep in my life for a long time.”
In 11 years of operation, Reubendale said, SAME has only lost money on one year. The landlord gives them a deal on the rent, and in turn SAME gets the landlord a tax break. They also hold fundraisers, get grants and receive a huge amount of support from local farms and wealthier people in the community.
And though Denver has changed since SAME opened in 2006, the need has not. Homes in the surrounding neighborhoods of Cheesman Park and City Park attract people with means to help, and the fixed-income housing, HIV house, transition programs and recovery houses are full of people who need a cheap or free meal.
SAME’s mission is to help anyone experiencing food insecurity, which means its reach is well beyond people who are currently homeless — people in poverty, students, artists, single parents and people that just lost a partner through divorce or death are all examples Reubendale cites.
He estimates that the café serves 30 to 50 people each day.
“We had a new neighbor move in the other day. He moved into the alley, so he’s experiencing homelessness. And we would see him back there and we’d try to talk to him and connect with him … and he was very, very suspicious,” Reubendale said. “It took him a month to finally come in … and he ventured in kind of tentatively one day. That was about two months ago and he has become one of our most loyal guests, and he comes in every day and he loves volunteering. He’ll do the 30 minutes in exchange for a meal but he usually will go beyond his 30 minutes because he’s trying to make sure the windows are perfectly spotless or that he sweeps up perfectly.
“The other day I just saw him at the dish pit next to one of our very wealthy volunteers and it made me choke up because I was like, ‘Where in the world do you ever see a millionaire and a person experiencing homelessness chatting and doing the same task as equals?'” It was beautiful. And that kind of community experience happens here every single day. It’s amazing.”