Today Christianity Today published my essay on two Denver-based restaurants: Café 180 and SAME (So All May Eat) Café. These restaurants, however, are not your typical lunch cafes. They both run on a pay-what-you-can model. That means customers are asked to donate either money or volunteer time for a meal. The effect of this model is, I believe, nothing short of revolutionary.
Several months ago I ate lunch with both Libby Burky, the Director of SAME Café, and Cathy Mathews, the Co-Founder of Café 180. Libby opened SAME Café in 2006 after working several years at a food shelf. She became frustrated by the poor quality of food at the food kitchen, and came to the conclusion that poor food, as well as simple hand- outs, rob people of their dignity. So she opened SAME Café off of historic Colfax Avenue on a new model. Serve organic food, cooked using clean energy, and make it available to all regardless of ability to pay. If they can’t pay, then customers are asked to volunteer one hour for a meal. Working for your meals restores to the unemployed or homeless the dignity of earning your keep.
Cathy Mathews, who I focused on for the article, has a similar story. With some help from Libby, she opened Café 180 in Englewood in 2010. Cathy’s story, however, flows out of the desire for community. She lives in Cherry Hills Village, and realized she knew very few of her poorer neighbors in Englewood. She desired a solution that would go beyond charity – a way to share not just money or food, but our lives with one another. And Café 180 has become just that – a community of rich and poor, secular and Christian, Republican and Democrat, all eating around a common table.
As I spent time with Libby and Cathy, what began to impress me was the way these restaurants can bring together people from drastically different walks of life. Both those who believe in the mission (the wealthy) and those who need a meal (the poor) volunteer in the kitchen. In doing so, they share their lives. Also, because the food is amazing, those who can pay full price arrive come faithfully for lunch. And those who haven’t had a great meal in a while, they too can each Mediterranean pizza or French Dip sandwiches.
The past two decades have led to the drastic gentrification – wealthy people moving into historically poor neighborhoods – of cities across the US. This can often cause class and racial tensions because when property values rise through redevelopment, the poor often must leave their neighborhoods for the cheaper suburbs. But pay-what-you-can restaurants have the potential to bring together these two wary neighbors around a good meal and a mission based on justice and hope.
Cathy Mathews shared with me that the desire to open Café 18o came from an extended time of prayer and silence. She felt “prompted” to see if she could assume the lease. Although Cathy is extremely humble about her faith, Cafe 180 is a great example how an individual put her faith into action at work.
So, I have a host of questions for discussion:
(1) What do you think about pay-what-you-can restaurants? Do you think this business model could work in other sectors?
(2) How can businesses make social good the primary bottom line? Do products and services you offer lend themselves toward building community and bringing people from different walks of life together?
(3) Could a pay-what-you-can restaurant work in your neighborhood? Why or why not?