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So All May Eat Cafe uses honor system to accomplish that goal

Libby and Brad Birky founded the SAME Cafe, which allows patrons to pay what they can. (CARMEL ZUCKER FOR THE LOS ANGELES TIMES)

DENVER -- In the six months since Libby and Brad Birky opened a small cafe on a grungy strip of Colfax Avenue, they have no idea how much money they've made. Or how much their customers have paid for a bowl of chicken chili or a slice of organic pesto pizza.

Prices, profits -- those don't mean much in the SAME Cafe. The acronym stands for "So All May Eat," and that philosophy is all that matters.

After years of volunteering in soup kitchens, Libby and Brad wanted to create a place that would nourish the hungry without setting them apart. No assembly-line service, no meals mass-produced from whatever happened to be donated that week. Just fresh, sophisticated food, made from scratch, served up in a real restaurant -- but a restaurant without a cash register.

Pay what you think is fair, the Birkys tell their customers. Pay what you can afford.

Those who have a bit more are encouraged to drop a little extra in the donations box up front. Those who can't pay are asked to work in the kitchen, dicing onions, scrubbing pots, giving back any way they can.

The Birkys could probably feed more hungry people, with far less effort, by donating the cash they spend on groceries to a homeless shelter.

That's not the point.

"It's not just the food," Libby says. "Often, homeless people, people in need, don't receive the same attention and care. Here, someone recognizes them, looks them in the eye, talks to them like they're just as valuable as the next person in line. That's why we do this."

Brad has turned away several panhandlers. He's not rolling pizza dough for four hours a day to give handouts.

He and Libby aim to build a community in the SAME Cafe, one that draws in bankers and students and women living on the streets. They want their small space to fill with conversation -- and with fellowship.

On this warm spring afternoon, James Duncan, 44, pedals up to the cafe and locks his bike to a rack. His T-shirt is ringed with sweat; his hair is matted.

Another regular comes in, an older woman named Dee.

"What about that hat?" Dee squeals, laughing at Libby's chef's cap.

"Until Dee discovered the cafe, she lived on instant noodles and cold cereal, with a fast-food burger now and then. Now, she lunches in the cafe at least four times a week. When she can, Dee pays $3 or $4. When she can't, she mops the floor.

James, a part-time math teacher, is out of cash today. He carries his empty bowl to the kitchen, pulls on rubber gloves, and starts washing.

In the back of the restaurant, Will Murray, 52, is wondering how much to drop in the donations box after a meal of soup, salad, and pizza. Ten dollars, he decides. On the wall behind him are framed quotations about giving: "A person's true wealth is the good he or she does in the world," and "Be the change you want to see."

"Maybe I'll toss in a few more," he says.