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Eat What You Want, Pay What You Can
Sarah Rich, 15 Jan 07
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According to many restaurant industry stats, well over 50% of new dining establishments fail before their one year anniversary. This would seem to be a very compelling reason to take no risks and make no compromises in the solid establishment of a brand new eatery. But a couple in Denver, Colorado, wrote risk into their business plan by opening a restaurant where patrons pay by donation according to their means, not set pricing.

SAME Café (an acronym for So All May Eat) opened in metro Denver in October 2006, and while it's still in its infancy, it seems bound to grow into its adolescence with fortitude. The proprietors, Brad and Libby Birky, have kept their day jobs as a computer programmer and teacher, respectively, and opted out of salaries for themselves just yet. But the "pay what you can afford model" has allowed them to break even on expenses each month since their opening.

Hope for their long-term success could be attributed in part to seeing one of their predecessors still thriving after more than three years. One World Cafe is a restaurant in Salt Lake City based upon a similar model. Owner Denise Cerreta actually met the Birkys when SAME was still an idea and promised her assistance when they were ready to open their own place.

Cerreta's willingness to travel to Denver and offer help comes from her long term vision of replicating this model in a number of American cities. She has established a foundation, One World Everybody Eats, which will ideally become an umbrella support network for "pay what you can" start-ups nationwide. SAME does not fall under that umbrella, but through early outreach and support for those who wish to act on the principles of donation-based food service, Cerreta's vision has a better chance of progressing. According to the OWEE website:

Ms. Cerreta is attempting to help people see the value of food as more than a mere consumable but rather, as a glue and a catalyst for healthy people, relationships and communities. The customer chooses portion sizes, eating only what they want, thus helping them stop waste. In the beginning, this decreased waste may translate itself into more food for aid. Later, she hopes the concept itself will become exportable. The cafe doesn't overfeed or withhold food.
Philosophy meets business through her desire to pay her workers a living wage, as well as establish a volunteer program which provides training to any individual seeking employment in the food service industry.

The rookie restauranteurs are all foodies who realize the value of sustainable food in fostering the health of communities and local economies. They do their best to pack their menus with organic, seasonal ingredients, and the offerings (which include such gourmet selections as pear and gorgonzola pizza) change frequently according to what's fresh and available. The SAME café is also associated with a nascent non-profit, So All May Eat, the mission of which is to address hunger issues through community programs. So far the café is their primary vehicle for doing so.

Both cafés were recently covered in a TIME article which affirmed that patrons who can afford to have been effectively balancing those who cannot pay for their meals, permitting the owners to carry our their founding mission, feeding neighbors in need:

The cafés' business models have won fans among the city's well-to-do residents, many of whom regularly dine there. At One World, patrons have given Cerreta a car, bought new dishes, arranged to professionally clean her carpets, supplied new tile for the restaurant bathrooms, and donated property for an organic garden and funded a new irrigation system for it. Last week, a gentleman left a $50 bill next to an empty bowl of soup at SAME. Since opening, one man has regularly come in and left money on the counter without eating, stating "I was blessed today so I though I'd pass it on." He's homeless.

We'll try to remember to check in on SAME café in October or November and see how the donation model is going at the telling one-year mark.

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this is a cool idea. it'll be neat to see if the owners will be able to support themselves solely from SAME

Posted by: Josh on 16 Jan 07

The idea it's great. However in order to be functionable you have to assure at least a ballance between the people who eat there and also make donations and the other people who are just eating without paying. In Romania there are a lot of places called "social restaurants" usually supported by the public authorities (or even some politicians that intend to build a good image) but only a limited number of people(homeless and/or people with very low incomes) are allowed to eat there (they keep evidence).The business model of SAME cafe is much more interesting and efficient I think. However I am they have any facilities regarding the tax payment(considering that they are not for profit)?

Posted by: Anca on 16 Jan 07

There's a cafe in Melbourne, Australia called "Lentil as Anything" that's been doing this for a few years now. They don't seem to have gone out of business yet, so people will pay!

Posted by: tom on 17 Jan 07

Not only Lentil as Anything not gone out of business, they've been around for five or so years, and now have four restraunts in Melbourne. Their food and atmosphere are pretty good, and the ethos can't be beat!

Posted by: George Darroch on 17 Jan 07



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