Pay-What-You-Can Cafe: Meals with Dignity

Community members enjoying a meal at the SAME Cafe

About a year ago on our way to author Anne Lamott’s book reading in Kansas City, I was having a conversation with three ladies from our congregation on our growing desire to invest in our community. As a church, we are growing in our understanding that we are here for our city.  God has placed us in Jefferson City and wants us to reveal His kingdom in this place. That requires getting out of our building and truly investing in lives and meeting needs.

As we dreamed about ideas, one of the ladies, Heather Feeler, shared an article she had recently read about a ministry in Denver, Colorado, called the SAME Cafe.  (Stands for “So All May Eat”).  This cafe was started in 2006 by a couple, Brad and Libby Birky, who had a dream to build a healthy community by providing a basic need of food in a respectful and dignified manner to anyone who walks through the door. SAME Cafe is unique in the lack of a set menu as well as set prices. Daily selections are made using fresh, organic ingredients, and funded by the donations of patrons. Instead of a cash register, a donation box is available for one to pay what they felt their meal was worth, or to leave a little more and help out someone less fortunate. If a diner does not have sufficient money to leave, they are encouraged to exchange an hour of service. Their philosophy is that everyone, regardless of economic status, deserves the chance to eat healthy food while being treated with dignity.

Cooking in the cafe kitchen.

I’ve spent the past three days in Denver with Heather learning from and volunteering with the folks of SAME Cafe.  We spent all day Friday at the cafe prepping food, washing dishes, sorting donated food and shopping for food for a catering event.  It was exhausting!  Heather and I were in bed by 8:30 pm. It was a realistic taste of how much hard work goes into running the cafe. But it was so beautiful to see the mix of 65-75 people that came in for lunch that day. Each went to the counter to select their lunch – two salad options, two soup options, and two pizza options! Even a cookie.  It was delicious, healthy food!  There is a donation box at the front of the line where people can place their donations but no one knows who pays for their meal through money, labor, or those who do neither.  It truly is a community cafe where all are equal.

The second day we spent prepping box lunches for a couple of catering events. Heather and I went with Libby to take about 105 lunches, pizzas, and drinks to the Denver Justice Conference.  Great group of people gathered to learn about ways to fight local injustices. The meals were a hit and the SAME Cafe idea was shared along with another Denver Community Cafe called Cafe 180: Where Appetites Unite. This gave us another opportunity to visit with someone who has started a “Pay-What-You-Can-Cafe” in Denver.  There are currently 18 similar cafes in the United States – the only one in Missouri being Panera’s cafe in Clayton, MO.

It is our hope that Jefferson City will add to that number with our own pay-what-you-can cafe.  We are just at the beginning stages of this dream but we are closer than we were a year ago when this idea was first discussed in that car ride to Kansas City.  We will continue to share with others our journey as we pray and seek the next step in this Kingdom-revealing venture.

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7 thoughts on “Pay-What-You-Can Cafe: Meals with Dignity

  1. we’ve been to the panera in clayton. what’s nice about it besides the meals, you can also pay/donate/volunteer for loaves of bread, muffins, etc (yesterday’s leftover i believe) to take with you. this helps add to the availability of food

    • I like that idea as well!  I know the SAME cafe works very hard to not have leftovers or waste in any way.  They are also very generous with their food.  When we prepare to do this in Jefferson City, we want to approach our local Panera about working together – receiving their extras/leftovers. 

      • trinity picks up bread at the end of the night several times a week from several local panera stores to distribute throughout the city so it can be done. i think there was some hesitation at first because of liability but it did get done so if you end up needing a reference or example to show the jeff city store just let us know. 
        excited for this!