If life were a movie, Brad and Libby Birky may well have wandered the Rockwellian townscapes of central Illinois, that hosted their upbringings, with some charming indie rock song playing in the air around them as a soundtrack. The script would have them very nearly meet so many times, turning to gaze wistfully back at each other after they passed. Brad, who grew up Mennonite outside a town of only 900, might have met Libby, who grew up 30-some miles away. They may have both reached for the same book in a quaint, local bookstore with a swell of horns signaling to them, and to the audience, just what could and would be.
The truth is, Brad and Libby didn’t meet until college, when Libby was attending a Catholic school upstate. She had attended Catholic school throughout her life, completing mission-work by building houses for people in need. But, when Brad and Libby met through a mutual friend, Cupid’s infamous arrow struck, little cartoon hearts appeared in the air, and ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” started playing just for them. Actually, that’s not right, but it was after her freshman year that they met. And in 1998 they were married. Cue those church bells.
Brad and Libby volunteered in soup kitchens and food banks in Peoria, Illinois, a city of just more than 110,000 people. You see, Brad and Libby are insanely kind and charitable people. And to be clear, “insane” in this usage is not a pejorative. It’s a superlative. They worked with the homeless and the less fortunate through those kitchens and banks. They were already helping. But, Brad and Libby are incredibly smart, critical thinkers. They’re the kind of people who, when you meet them, you see the wheels turning. They’re always looking for solutions. And while they were volunteering, they were also doing a lot of noticing.
Jump forward four years. It’s 2002. Brad and Libby Birky move from Peoria to Denver, Colorado. It’s their jump to a bigger city, and let’s be honest, they couldn’t have picked a better one. Brad is working in IT, and even though he’s paying the bills, there’s a little something missing. Brad wants to be a chef, so, with Libby’s trademark, glowing encouragement, he starts taking culinary classes at Metro State College of Denver. And he kills it. He’s a chef. So they start talking about opening a restaurant, and Libby, who has some restaurant experience from back in the day, is on board, too.
Remember that critical thinking we mentioned earlier? Here’s where it comes back around. Brad and Libby, burgeoning restaurateurs, don’t decide to open the next great Denver diner. They don’t try to compete with the downtown scene. They don’t open up a healthful joint up in the Highlands, or take advantage of the growth in Uptown. They cash in their 401(k)s and they go to Colfax. East Colfax to be specific, and they open a cafe that’s Wonderfully Different. And their Wonderfully Different idea hatches because they remember those people they served in the food banks and soup kitchens. Brad and Libby Birky open SAME (So All May Eat) Café, at Colfax and Race, and the kicker is that their café is Pay What You Can. No prices anywhere. The clientele ranges from neighborhood folks who’ve fallen on hard times to families, college students, artists, and everyone else. The place serves the neighborhood, focused on healthy food, giving back, day after day. And that’s how two wonderful people, both from small beginnings, both with a love for community, fell in love, moved to the big city and ended up giving people so much more. Over the years, the Birky’s have mentored and inspired 40+ other communities to start cafes similar to SAME. Their impact is not only felt in the Denver community, but truly across the country. In October, the Birky’s turned over the day-to-day operations of SAME Cafe to a new executive director and chef to ensure that SAME Cafe and others like it can be sustainable. They decided that they would take a “victory lap” of sorts--seeing the cafes that have popped up and the communities impacted. We know their wheels are still spinning. We can't wait to see what these two come up with next. Cue the orchestra. Fin. Roll credits.
LINK: SAME CAFÉ