At Denver’s SAME Café, no day is ever the same.
The menu changes almost daily, depending on what’s come in fresh from local organic growers. Prices aren’t set on the menu, either. As for the clientele — it’s typical to see a business-suited customer lunching next to another patron who carries his worldly possessions in a shopping cart.
SAME is shorthand for So All May Eat, a nonprofit restaurant on a mission to upend the traditional soup kitchen model and provide organic, healthy food, regardless of a person’s ability to pay. If a patron can’t afford a meal, they can volunteer to work in the café for a half hour. If they can pay, they’re asked to give a little more.
It is this recipe of healthy food and service to those in need that brought IVC volunteer Ann Cohen through the café doors this past fall. A retired nutritionist and faculty from the University of Missouri, Cohen spends Tuesdays and Wednesdays not behind the lunch counter, but behind a desk helping the café raise money to support its mission.
She arrived at just the right time. It is a pivotal year for the café, which first opened in 2006. It’s originators, Brad and Libby Birky, had just turned the café’s operations over to its first-ever executive director, Brad Reubendale, and chef, Letisha Steele. What the café needed next were the funds to fuel their growth plans.
Cohen’s background combines an expertise in both nutrition and in initiating and funding innovative programs. At the University of Missouri, she started study-abroad programs in Italy and Ireland, among other educational initiatives. She also landed an $18 million grant for a nutrition education program for food stamp recipients, one of the largest single grants the university has ever received.
So when she got to SAME Café, she rolled up her sleeves and started doing what she does best — writing grants and finding supporters. It wasn’t long before she and Reubendale gained the patronage of Denver-based Luprino Foods, the largest provider of mozzarella cheese in the country. Luprino now donates 100 pounds of cheese a month to the café, a significant contribution for a restaurant whose menu staples include soup, salad and pizza.
“They not only give us the cheese, but they also bought us a freezer to allow us to store the cheese,” Cohen says.
She and Reubendale also attracted funding for a Cook to Work program. It formalizes a dynamic already happening at the café. The people who work for their meal often gain valuable experience, which they are able to parlay into employment in the food-service industry. The formal program now includes additional support for participants, like help in attaining certifications as well as in resume and interview skills.
So far the Reubendale-Cohen duo have landed every grant to which they’ve applied.
“Her background is so uniquely perfect for SAME Café,” Reubendale says of Cohen. “We could not do this growth without her.”
Cohen, he says, keeps him grounded, especially as they face the challenges inherent in running and growing a café that feeds an average of 55 people per day, over a three-and-a-half hour lunch rush. “She lets me be the best version of myself,” he adds. “She has become my right-hand person.”
The café holds to a ratio of 60:40 patrons who can’t afford the food they serve and those who can give extra. It’s a balance they want to extend to a new food truck they’re hoping to purchase. The truck would drive to Denver’s so-called “food deserts” — low-income communities bereft of accessible fresh produce and decent grocery stores — bringing healthy food as well as education on healthy cooking. On other days, it would join the ranks of the ever-popular city food trucks serving foodies who can pay and contribute to the café’s mission.
“There is a phenomenal community that develops,” Reubendale says of the café and its mission. “There is no other place where people with means and those without can sit down to eat together, and not because one is helping the other.
“It’s a magical community,” he adds. “This is what happens when you invite everyone to the table.”