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Making Money, Mending Society: Social Entrepreneurship in Denver

One of the country’s first social entrepreneurship cafes, and one of only 23 in the country, Denver’s SAME Cafe is one of the first and most innovative social enterprises out there. Here’s what they’re doing and what they see happening with Denver social entrepreneurship. 
It’s a simple concept. Make money while bettering society. Non-profit do gooding meets for-profit demand. Simple but difficult. 

In 2006, Brad and Libby Birky opened the SAME Café on Colfax, a pay as you can café. People pay what they can for organic lunches six days a week. Seventy percent of patrons pay an average of $4.50 for a meal. Those that can’t pay, work for their food or have costs covered by donations and grants. 

Many people are familiar with the Birkys’ story. After volunteering in soup kitchens -- seeing the same people return for not-so healthy food -- they realized they were filling an immediate hunger hole but weren’t providing a sustainable, long-term solution to the area’s hungry population. So, while working full time jobs, they conceptualized the SAME Café, backing Denver’s first social enterprise with more than $30,000 in personal savings. 

Today, with a $250,000 budget, the Birkys serve about 20,000 people a year, have 350 volunteers and are looking to expand for the second time. This time, that expansion will go outside the kitchen and into the streets, where they plan to launch a pay as you can food truck. More importantly, they know they’re making a difference -- they're providing healthy food for thousands of people and many of the people they help return as paying or donating customers.

The Birkys are one of 23 pay as you go cafes in America. As the longest running, they’re the go-to mentors for others interested in social entrepreneurship startups. Even Bon Jovi, who set up a similar kitchen in New Jersey, sent a team to Denver to seek their advice.

Here’s what Libby had to say about social entrepreneurship in Denver. 

CD: Why social entrepreneurship? 
LB: There’s a misconception that you’re either only in business to make money or to help charities. There’s really a nice middle that’s up and coming where you can be in business and do good.

We were trying to decide if we were going non-profit or for profit at a time when triple bottom lines (economic, ecological and social) were really unheard of. 

We went the non-profit route at the time because the idea of social entrepreneurship was so new that we didn’t think we could garner enough support around what we were doing without a tax write off for folks. Now, it’s a totally different market. Now you’ve got TOMS, Chipotle – major companies that have the social component as part of its brand.

CD: How did you fund this new concept?
LB: We asked family and friends to sponsor an item – from a $2.99 spatula to a $1,000 icemaker – and raised about $5,000. We also put our whole lifesavings into it.

Now when we do similar fundraising, it turns into something totally different. We reach a lot more people. For our six-year anniversary, we put on Facebook and Twitter what SAME wanted for its birthday -- which was to feed six people lunch – and raised $1,932.SAME Cafe interior.

CD: What was the catalyst behind the shift in funding sources?
LB: There’s a totally different sustainability piece that comes from a larger base of donors that we didn’t have when we started our social venture.

I think a combination of things caused the shift. I think the state of society and culture shifted. The need is so great right now and we’ve been in recession for so long that people are strapped. (When SAME started, it served 6,000 people. When the recession hit, numbers jumped to nearly 20,000 a year, prompting the Birkys to expand into an adjoining space.)

I think a lot of people started realizing that a lot of small donations can make a big difference, which is really empowering, especially in Denver. Denver is a hub of social ventures. It’s a breeding ground for entrepreneurial ideas that doesn’t exist anywhere else or that I haven’t seen. I think it's because Denver is great at community and understands that small donations make a big difference in the bigger picture.

CD: Is social entrepreneurship taking off in Denver?
LB: What you see happening right now is pretty amazing. I have a lot of connections with food justice and entrepreneurship -- places like the Grow House and urban homesteading -- none of those things existed when we opened.

There’s a huge movement of the socially minded and socially conscious. I see it from food because I’m mostly around food, but a lot of things are coming on board. Tons of triple bottom line practices like the Greater Good Academy are about people working toward building a more just way of making money instead of a profit centered approach. 

We’ve already talked to an acupuncturist, dentist and someone opening a yoga studio based on these models. 

CD: Are there barriers to entry specific to social entrepreneurship that need to be lifted in Denver?
LB:  There’s a whole organization now -- Social Venture Partners Denver -- that connects government to business to the non-profit world. That didn’t exist when we were around. 

I think government is doing its best to bridge the gap. They have a small business incubator at the city and county building and the city had, for the longest time, a great model in Mayor Hickenlooper. He totally understood small business and the sacrifice it took so he worked his magic and did the best he could with the red tape. 

You have a lot of things you didn’t have 10 years ago including small business mentorship programs. It’s about building these connections between business and government from the mindset that we can do good while making money. 

Read more articles by Ivy Hughes.

Ivy Hughes is a Colorado native and coffee shop junkie. Contact her here.
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