Feb 5, 2024 - News

"So All May Eat:" Denver's pay-what-you-can cafe offers food and dignity

A SAME Cafe staff member hands a plate of food to a guest over the counter.

A server delivers a meal to a patron at SAME Café. Photo: Courtesy of Hard Knoch PR

For nearly 20 years, SAME Café on Denver's East Colfax Avenue has operated under an unchanging business model for one sole purpose: "So All May Eat."

Why it matters: SAME — which opened in 2006 as the city's first nonprofit restaurant — now lays claim to being the longest-running nonprofit, participation-based cafe in the country.

  • Through the decades, it has managed to build community and bring dignity and hope to people in need through unfettered access to fresh, healthy food.

How it works: In exchange for locally sourced, made-from-scratch meals, diners have three options: They can trade 30 minutes of volunteer time, deliver fresh produce, or donate however many dollars they can spare.

What they're saying: "It doesn't matter if you have $1 million or $5 in your pocket. This is a place where everybody is welcome. Everybody can come and sit down and have lunch together," executive director Carrie Shores tells us.

By the numbers: The nonprofit has six paid full-time staffers and runs on roughly $800,000 in annual contributions. 80% of the eatery's expenses are covered through fundraising efforts. The rest comes from the cafe, where donations average about $5 per person, Shores says.

  • SAME serves roughly 80 meals a day inside the eatery, but it delivers hundreds more around the city when called on by the community — like catering to people experiencing homelessness during COVID.

Driving the news: Its latest mission is providing "culturally familiar food," like rice and beans, to migrants at city shelters, an effort made possible through more than $4,000 in donations.

  • The cafe is serving 600 meals a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays — but it's not enough to meet demand.
  • More than half of the migrants being fed are children. "We're talking younger than pre-school age," Shores says. "And they're hungry."

What's next: The cafe is asking for more donations and volunteers to keep the meals — and momentum — going.

  • "Everything here makes the difference, whether you're chopping vegetables, whether you're filling somebody's coffee cup, whether you're downstairs sweeping and mopping, it doesn't matter," Shores says.
  • "Everybody contributes to the mission of the organization, and that is how we've been able to stay here for 17 years."

Zoom out: Although SAME Café's business model is unique, there are hundreds of other nonprofit restaurants around the country that donate some or all profits to charities.

  • Not all have stayed afloat, however. For example, Rosa's Fresh in Philadelphia — a $1 pay-it-forward pizzeria — was forced to close in 2019 after just six years amid financial struggles.
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