SAME Cafe's Brad Birky on food trucks, bottom-feeders and why T-shirts are better than chef's coats
2023 East Colfax Avenue
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Brad Birky, executive chef/owner of the SAME Cafe. You can read part two of this interview right back here tomorrow.
It's 3 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, an hour after closing time, and Brad Birky, clad in a T-shirt and shorts, is in his open kitchen, rolling out pizza dough for tomorrow's lunch rush. His wife, Libby, is presiding over the cleanup efforts, working with a handful of volunteers, all of whom have offered to donate their time to pay for their meal. It's just another typical day at the SAME Cafe, the donation-based, pay-what-you'd-like restaurant that Brad and Libby opened four years ago on a wing and a prayer. "It cost us just under $30,000 to open the cafe, and every cent of it was ours," says Brad, who jokes that he and Libby paid off their car loan in full "so if it all fell through, we'd have a place to live."
Brad, who was born and raised in a small farm town in Illinois, comes from a family of volunteers, as does Libby, and they've incorporated this inherited altruistic passion into their own lives. While working toward a computer-science degree at the University of Missouri, both volunteered in soup kitchens once a week for four years before eventually moving to Denver and donating hours to the Catholic Worker House, where they prepared meals for the people living there. "We started soul-searching, knowing that we wanted to make volunteering a part of our daily lives, and we wanted to keep reaching out to people just on the verge -- the ones who weren't completely down and out but who couldn't afford their rent, medication, car payments or milk for their kids -- and that's how our concept for a donation-only cafe came about," explains Brad. He took a series of culinary classes at Metro State to learn the ropes of working in a professional kitchen, and in October 2006, he and Libby opened the doors to the SAME Cafe.
"During the first few weeks, everyone was looking around for a menu and prices and trying to figure out what kind of place they'd just walked into," remembers Brad. "We constantly had to give people the donation spiel, but slowly, word started getting out." There were naysayers and realists who predicted -- wrongly -- that the concept would never work, but they "were few and far between," Brad says. "It's not a concept that can fail, because if we serve just one meal a day, it makes at least one person happy, and if all else fails, we slap prices on the menu. It's not a high-risk venture."
Since opening, Brad and Libby have doubled their square footage and gone from serving thirty people a day in an eight-hour time frame to feeding 75 people a day during a three-hour window. Perhaps most important, they've also become the "unofficial" go-to brains for those who want to duplicate their efforts elsewhere. "We love that the concept is being spread -- it's so awesome -- and we do what he can to help people get off the ground," Brad says. But he adamantly refuses to entertain the idea of franchising SAME. "That won't ever happen," he insists. "We're very happy with what we have."