Civic Center Eats has introduced a new pay-what-you-can model

More than 700 people typically converge on Civic Center in downtown Denver every Thursday at lunchtime for the Civic Center Eats food truck roundup.

The gathering, which also includes music, has been a tradition in one form or another for more than a decade, save for a postponement in 2020 due to the pandemic. This summer, more than a dozen trucks are selling food — but there’s a new option when it comes to paying for a meal.

Civic Center Eats has adopted an optional pay-what-you-can model, a pilot program called “Eats for All,” which attendees can choose by scanning a QR code displayed at the center of the park. It’s a partnership between Civic Center Conservancy, which hosts the food-truck roundup, and Denver-based Barefoot Public Relations in hopes of making Civic Center Eats more accessible.

It works like this: After scanning the QR code, guests pay an amount they feel they can afford and then receive a token to use at any food truck in the park that day.

Anyone can participate with no questions asked, although organizers say they have to trust the system won’t be abused — and, in fact, they’re encouraging people who can afford to pay full price to help keep the program going by donating money.

Eric Lazarri, Civic Center Conservancy executive director, said while payments can vary from large amounts to nothing, the typical contribution falls between $2 and $5 per visitor. Trucks are then reimbursed for the tokens they received using funds from the conservancy, donors and Barefoot PR.

Pay-what-you-can models aren’t new in Denver (The Denver Post wrote about three of them back in 2010) and have included everything from theater and yoga in addition to food, but conversations about accessibility issues have been renewed as prices have soared with inflation and supply shortages are abundant. Affordable meals and fresh ingredients are harder to come by, Lazarri said, and he didn’t want Civic Center Eats to become a luxury when it was held in a public, historical space for everyone to enjoy.

“It’s gotten more expensive to go grocery shopping, has gotten more expensive to eat at Civic Center,” Lazarri said. “And so for us, it was super important that we didn’t want cost to be a barrier.”

For Lazarri, accessibility has always been important. Whether serving an unhoused person or a minimum wage worker stopping by from downtown, he wanted the event to be available to all.

Civic Center Eats found inspiration for the model from one of its regularly participating food trucks, SAME Cafe, which has operated a pay-what-you-can restaurant at 2023 E. Colfax Ave. since 2006. SAME Cafe remains one of the country’s oldest pay-what-you-can restaurants, and Lazarri said he’d always admired it. So, he contacted SAME Cafe to help determine what Civic Center Eat’s model would look like.

SAME Cafe experienced a record burst of customers in 2020, early in the pandemic, by partnering with humanitarian organizations that were helping shelter families in motels. Because the motels weren’t equipped with kitchens, SAME provided pre-packaged meals to serve the families.

“We went from serving about 60 to 80 folks a day to serving 300 meals every day for lunch,” SAME Cafe director Theresa Marten said.

SAME Cafe also saw people come in who were struggling with other pandemic-related issues, from financial woes to mental health struggles. Even without a pandemic, it’s still fairly simple for people to become food insecure, Marten said.

“It doesn’t take a lot,” she said. “Gas goes up, and that money that you would normally have for your grocery bill is now moved to another (responsibility).”

The pandemic also motivated another organization, Focus Points Family Resource Center in Globeville, to launch a pay-what-you-can style farmers market in 2020.

Huerta Urbana Farmer’s Market moved to the Focus Points campus this year from the River North neighborhood to be more accessible to Globeville residents, who live in one of the largest food deserts in the country. There are few grocery stores there, and it’s often described as a “food swamp” — meaning it is overwhelmed with cheap, unhealthy options and fast-food restaurants.

Customers can pay as low as nothing in exchange for fresh produce and dry goods at the Huerta Urbana Farmer’s Market, and money that is put toward the market is placed in a fund to reimburse vendors, as well as money from additional grants and donations from outside organizations.

Huerta Urbana program manager Seynabou Sohai said the market averages about $750 a week from visitors. Pay-what-you-can models are more important now than ever, she said.

“One of the things that the pandemic really did was expose all the cracks in food distribution,” she said. “This type of model really comes in handy when people are trying to do the best they can and they want to feed their families healthier items, and we just try to make it available to them.”

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