Pandemic causes Denver pay-what-you-can cafe to have its busiest year yet

Posted at 1:25 PM, Jul 01, 2021

DENVER — The past year took the lunch rush at a local pay-what-you-can cafe to a new level.

SAME Cafe, which stands for 'So All May Eat,' experienced its busiest year yet in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic caused financial hardships for Denver-area families.

"What we're seeing is a lot of folks who are experiencing homelessness for the first time, experiencing poverty for the first time or experiencing food insecurity for the first time, ever," said Brad Reubendale, the executive director of SAME Cafe. "So, they're navigating a system that they're unfamiliar with."

Reubendale moved operations from the restaurant's patio and started doing to-go service in the early days of the pandemic. During stay-at-home orders, needs began to soar, and he committed to staying open.

"We actually served more people during that period, almost as many people during that three-month shutdown as we had the whole year prior," said Reubendale.

Reubendale, his staff and volunteers served more than 28,000 meals last year compared with 20,000 meals served during 2019. He said about 90% of customers are experiencing some kind of challenge — many of which are related to the pandemic.

"There was a woman who drove up in a van, and she said, 'Can I have five meals?' And we said, 'of course.' She said, 'My kids are in the van, we've never been homeless before, but we're sleeping in my van,'" Reubendale said, explaining what it was like to see need first-hand.

He said he asked the woman in the van what she was planning to do for dinner and decided to give her extra meals when he realized she had no way of feeding her kids that night. When other restaurants decided to permanently or temporarily shut down, Reubendale said several of those businesses decided to donate their entire food inventory to the cafe.

"I got to see the best of humanity this past year," Reubendale said. "It's been a big challenge, but it's also been an incredible year."

The SAME Cafe operates on a pay-what-you-can model, but customers can also volunteer or donate produce in exchange for a meal. Grants and donations from charitable foundations go towards expenses not covered by food sales.

The cafe is currently in need of volunteers.

"We still are seeing those big numbers of folks that are in need, and they're coming to SAME Cafe. That just means we need volunteers and donors more than ever right now," Reubendale said.

SAME Cafe is hosting a fundraiser event on July 15. Proceeds will help the nonprofit continue meeting this increased demand.

More information is available here.

This story was originally published by Liz Gelardi on Scripps station KMGH in Denver.