Cafe for anchoring communities: An idea I'm afraid to step forward with.

  So here's a brief run down. I'm a Portland barista and have always dreamt of opening a cafe (like many of us), and the first thing that comes to mind is that I want to do this in Portland. I do. I love it here, it is my favorite, but we're extremely packed full of cafes already. This got me thinking of neighborhood where there isn't a cafe for miles.

  I've been reading up lately on strategies to battle and defend against gentrification (which runs rampant 'round these parts) and suddenly an idea came, inspired by Max Remau's Take Back The Land! Opening cafes in neighborhoods potentially drowned in gentrification. Touchy. So, some simple (on paper) ideas I have so far are these:


~Co-op run by members of the neighborhood.


~All employees from said neighborhood.


~Constant stream of "concious" artists for events and decor. 


~Host community discussions, events and meetings of other community planners.


~Encourage support for positively active civic leaders, NGOs, non-profits, grassroots orgs, through media we provide, and events held (what I'm thinking here is a sort of community library for what's going on locally).


~Possibly host classes for combatting homelessness, gentrification, education on people's rights, legal lingo, renter buyouts, etc.


  How this would help in anchoring communities is in that gentrification usually sparks in neighborhoods that are abandoned by the city because of a low flow of capital in the area. Often times areas that the city buys (usually out from under the feet of people with no where to go, and usually minorities) are just left to rot (Portlanders, I know you know what I'm talkin' about, inner Williams, for example). But if a cafe was set up to bring the city a little revenue, a little attention to the area, and people in the neighborhoods were given a little education, it could help in slowing gentrification, building community awareness, and hopefully improve the quality of neighborhoods without pushing the people out. 

  I know this is ballsy and this is a bit dangerous and unconventional, financially and communally, but truly I think with enough effort this is doable. Let me know what you think (if you've read this far, thank you).


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You're very right, "preferance" would definitely be a better call. I do fear the co-op approach for the same reasons. This is going to take a lot of planning, which kinda bums me out just cause I wanna get it going, but if it's going to work successfully its going to have to be done the right way. Thank you very much for your input.

Marshall Fuss said:
I would avoid organizing it as a coop. You will have enough challenges getting this off the ground without dealing with coop politics and members whose priorities may turn out to be very different from your own. You might also consider giving "preference" to local residents, rather than making it an absolute requirement for employment. Good staff are not easy to find!
Yeah, like I said to Marshall, I do fear the co-op approach and for good reason. I was also thinking about doing it 51% ownership and 49% in the public, but that get's tricky too, for equally sketch reasons. Much planning to do. Thanks a ton for your input Brady.

Brady said:
Marshall hits several good points.

I know that the shop here in Charlotte has run into quite a few problems with the co-op approach. They have a real problem with people getting ideas and just doing them without talking about it, or in several cases, even thinking about it too much. They've built, torn down, and rebuilt several things in the shop as a result - like the bar that someone built without considering usability or ADA requirements. Or the plumbing layout. Or the wiring. Etc...

Focus, communication, clear direction, and leadership are critical for achieving something like a cafe upfit on a tight budget and timeline. I suppose you could do it as a group, but be careful.
Thank you Terika, common cup sounds awesome, and I think I might try to contact them to see what their full approach to launching was all about. Thanks for the support!

Terika said:
Alex, this sounds great! I worked at a coffee shop in Chicago in a neighborhood deemed to be the most diverse neighborhood in the US, and it definitely was fighting gentrification. You can check out the website After opening up, all of the local residents seemed to have similar responses of, "We needed a place like this." The neighborhood residents are very appreciative of the 'third space' that they now have and how it is supporting their neighborhood. It was very obvious that it filled a deep void. I imagine yours will fill a similar void.
I am in the process of doing something similar right now.... just maybe not to the exact degree. I am a seattle barista in the process of opening my own shop. Doing this all via own cash and ZERO loans. and jesus... still a lot of money but anyhow.... I am heading out of city limits to pursue 'the dream'. We are saturated here and I am trying to bring third/fourth wave quality to an area that ONLY has corporate. It is not the best neighborhood by any means but I feel it is on the up and up. I have this dream of starting something spectacular in a area that wouldnt normally get the liking of such things.

I think it can be done.... I want people to know they have a place to relax... bring their children...hang out after school...feel like they can as well have some luxuries in life. I will be doing the basics of live local music and visual artist's but am thinking of perhaps implementing a barista training program and giving youth skills they can utilize to prepare for the future. It can give them training in customer service, espresso/coffee knowledge and overall cafe experience. This is only a recent addition to my ideas so I will ned to think further on the idea. I am so blindly optimistic that I plan on using that to feed to the community. One talent my friends/managers/co-workers have always said I possess is the ability to get people excited for things they never even gave second though of. A motivational speaker of sorts. I want to show people just how this business that I am so IN LOVE with can be so community building and so supportive of the communities creative endeavors.

I say do it.... and LOVE it.... I am going in with my boyfriend so I have the support system needed emotionally and financially so I would recommend you try to do the same thing... maybe with someone wanting to get a baking business up and going or something???

You said you know it is ballsy but like my dad told me when I asked for his professional opinion "No guts no glory"

Please by all means keep us here posted..... I would love to hear what you do.... some ideas.... we can exchange what works well for us.....

This is a goal of mine as well. Don't be afraid of going up against the corporate coffee, i've found that while most people don't know/care about the differences in quality of coffee between starbucks and the little guy, almost everyone will respond to a more creative and relaxed environment. If you can create something unique in your shop, people will have no problem choosing you over a mass produced cookie cutter coffee shop. You have some great ideas are far as community outreach and education, and i wish you the best of luck.
BRL... how interesting that your name is Lehman... I couldn't disagree with your comments more. I assure you we are a profit motivated company but we are also a community motivated company. We allow our cafe's to be used for the display of art by local artists, we do not charge them for this or take a commission on sale, we allow local community groups to use our cafe's and not only do we not insist that they buy things we will often provide the coffee free of charge. Dozens of charitable organizations have used our cafe's for fund raisers. All of our shops have community bulletin boards and we provide free magazines and newspapers to our customers at considerable cost... (and yes, we make money).

When I walk up to one of my cafe's and I see people sitting around, reading, using computers, talking with friends. When I see people on dates... or better yet... couples meeting for the first time in one of our cafe's I am genuinely happy.

Once in a while we get free loaders or people who abuse our hospitality ... and once in a while we have to put our foot down...

Our shops are used by Junior Achievement, reading clubs, social groups, for business meetings, by planning committees and lots of other groups and I assure you that we are very much a part of our local community.

Kind regards
B. R. Lehman said:
Artist and the like will move on. Let's face it they are a shiftless bunch of dreamers and do-nothings. You want to attract real people.
B. R. Lehman
If you have narrowed your mind to the point that you divide the world into "real people" (meaning people like yourself, 'natch) and shiftless dreamers, you are probably more ready to organize a Tea Party chapter than a coffee shop. Small fortunes have been made opening coffee shops that cater to creative neighborhoods.
Hey, I just stumbled on your post. I live in Oakland, and we have the same problem. The cafe I was working for was built into a neighborhood that was ripe for gentrifying. We would sometimes get customers who you could tell were coming in because it was closer than the gas station, who'd been living in the neighborhood their whole lives, and it would always make me cringe to see the look on their face when they see our prices for organic fair trade coffees, and I can tell a lot of them see us as a threat of good ol white invasion. I think there are ways to balance this though. Creating an atmosphere that is welcoming to everyone is a good start. Not be exclusive to people who can't pay for a 4 dollar mocha is another (let the homeless dude have a cup of water, for fuck's sake). I also like your idea of hosting events that bring attention to social issues, or hosting classes.

I'm putting together a team to buy the cafe I was working at and making it a worker owned coop. I don't know that I'd necessarily want to be business partners with just anyone in the neighborhood (we're all from this hood, but you know, experienced baristas with college degrees aren't really the people you're talking about helping), but I do want to at least help promote the idea of coops in general as a viable business plan for people who couldn't otherwise afford to just start a business on their own from scratch. And I definitely think that coops are the way of the future for bringing average lower class people into the small business world. We're raised to think that the entrepreneurial dream is to build a successful business, and then sit back and watch the money roll in, but even if you have the capital to start a business, this is almost never the case anyway. Every good small business I know has the owner behind the counter every once in a while, and has good, fair relationships with its workers. With a coop, you can make very decent money, minimize managerial work, responsibilities, and investment risk, and you automatically have a better chance at a successful business because each worker is literally invested in the product.

Cafe's can start gentrification, but they're also really powerful sources of communication and community, and that could be used to do some very good things, not just raise real estate prices and driving people into the ghetto. Sounds like you've already got some good ideas, keep going. And if you want to talk co-op, hit me. Good luck.
You have the same problem finding reliable workers to hire as finding co op members. Cafes are the perfect business to cooperatize because it's very easy to find baristas who are passionate about what they do already, and who, every one of them, has thought how great it would be to own a cafe. And when you add in the incentive of profit sharing, there would just be no stopping you from having a superteam of competition-level baristas. "my" cafe doesn't have much foot traffic either, but it's got lots of neighbors who used to be loyal before the cafe was taken over by this fur shop owner who knows squat about coffee. I digress.
With a team of the right people, you could out-compete most shops around, and bring the customer to you. Division of responsibilities is also huge: we can have one person who's only managerial job is to book music, one person for art, everyone coming up with ideas for other events and hosting them. You also only need 6-10 people, so if you get a like-minded group, there's not much danger of politics getting messy, just be sure your charter is clear on exactly what the company's goals are and have everyone sign the dotted line. There's a lot of work to do in researching your states co-op laws, but there are also a lot of resources out there, and it could be worth it. Food for thought.

Marshall Fuss said:
I would avoid organizing it as a coop. You will have enough challenges getting this off the ground without dealing with coop politics and members whose priorities may turn out to be very different from your own. You might also consider giving "preference" to local residents, rather than making it an absolute requirement for employment. Good staff are not easy to find!

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