East Kensington residents may remember a small coffee shop on York and Coral streets called Leotah’s Place, with its homey environment and familiar neighborhood faces sipping on coffee and taking advantage of the store’s open-use-policy computer.
They may also remember how the store attempted to bridge the gaps between the young people moving into the community and those who have been living there for years.
“People called Leotah’s the ‘heart of East Kensington and Fishtown,” said the coffee shop’s owner Blew MaryWillow Kind. Now 26, she opened Leotah’s when she was 22. “There were so many regulars who would be there for hours.”
Despite its popularity, the coffee shop closed this past January after Kind had a falling out with the landlord.
“When [Kind] had to close it down, it became clear from the countless responses from people how much was lost,” said Julius Rivera, a community advisor to Kind and an administrator of the East Kensington’s Friends of Hagert Street Playground.
The goal was to reopen, admits Kind, but after further difficulties with the landlord she decided it was time to move on and start a new business. As of September 21, after reaching a crowdfunding goal of $12,000 via an impressive Kickstarter campaign, that goal is one step closer to being achieved.
The business will be called Franny Lou’s Porch, another coffee shop in the same vein as Leotah’s Place, and it will open up at 2400 Coral Street, across the street from where its predecessor once stood. A reference to 20th century civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer and 19th century abolitionist and poet Frances E.W. Harper, Franny Lou’s hopes to channel the oppression-free spirit of its namesakes.
The new coffee shop hopes to pick up where Leotah’s left off, but with an even greater emphasis placed on fostering relationships in the neighborhood.
But can Leotah’s sense of community be replicated? Amid a sea of high-end coffee shops mostly catering to newcomers, was Leotah’s an anomaly or a viable model for other businesses looking to bridge community and commerce?
More than a coffee shop
Leotah’s cozy, welcoming atmosphere was not the sole factor in its unusual ability to reconcile divides in a diverse community like East Kensington.
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The secret to Leotah’s success? Kind’s relentless neighborhood outreach. At 26, Kind is already considered to be a matriarchal figure in her community. She’s known to travel door-to-door in her neighborhood, arms brimming with coffee, tea and baked goods for any soul who might be in the mood for a quick snack and some pleasant conversation.
Eventually, Kind’s congeniality trickled down to how her customers at Leotah’s interacted with each other — especially new and old residents of the neighborhood.
“[Leotah’s] provided a place where those two groups could be present together,” said Adam Malliet, a regular of the coffee shop, who was attracted by its atmosphere and reasonably priced organic coffee and food.
Rivera also remembers Leotah’s as a kind of bonding agent, bringing together neighbors who wouldn’t typically interact under normal circumstances. Sometimes these interactions highlighted the ugly racism that exists between different parts of the community. In fact, Kind embraces those sometimes-uncomfortable discussions about racial divides. She is able to see potential for growth in the types of conversations that would ordinarily make participants and eavesdroppers alike shift in their seats.
Kind recalls an exchange with one of her regulars at Leotah’s – a middle-aged construction worker of Irish descent.
“He said to me, ‘I used to think that black people were just mean. But you know, I come here and I realize I don’t know everything.’ The way to cultivate a really open community is realizing that you don’t know everything,” says Kind. “It’s beautiful how I’ve been accepted.”
What about Leotah’s created this environment? Kind points to her focus on hospitality, rather than just food and drink.
“My basic passion is not food or coffee,” she says. “It’s hospitality. It’s about bringing people together and making them feel comfortable for their voices to be heard – especially people who wouldn’t necessarily talk to each other.”
That kind of total immersion with the community may be rare in conventional business practices, but it’s an element that Rivera believes should be at the core of every business model.
“Every business needs to be aware of the needs of the community and assess whether they are contributing to factors that are deteriorating the community, or if they are actually providing opportunities and services,” he said. By no means is community engagement a newfangled idea, but it’s a method of operating local business that has yet to reach its full potential.
A place to bring together new and old ideas
One major complaint about Leotah’s was a lack of proper space for activity. Franny Lou’s will have more room to work with, and Kind is looking forward to capitalizing on the opportunity to make her new business a platform for the arts and intellect. The arts, she said, can be a naturally cohesive device.
“We want to engage our customers in creativity,” said Kind. “We want to be a place where people can bring together new ideas and old, good ideas.”
Malliet, who shares Kind’s excitement for a larger shop, is perhaps most enthused by the prospect of outdoor seating and proper performing space. Every Saturday night at Franny Lou’s, Kind hosts a “Saturday Night Living Room” where people can come relax, play music, paint, draw, read poetry, and “have sweet discussions while enjoying friends and sweet music.”
While Franny Lou’s is already using its space to to nurture artistic endeavors, the coffee shop’s Kickstarter also mentions plans to use its adjacent lot to build a garden and play area for kids. Children, like the arts, can be a powerful tool for overcoming customer cliques and bringing people together.
“I focus on children and elders,” said Kind, who purposefully decorated Leotah’s (and plans on decorating Franny Lou’s) as if it were a grandmother’s house. “Everyone wants to go to a grandmother’s house,” she said. “It’s very inviting for children, and I want everyone to feel invited.”
Franny Lou’s Porch aims to be twice the business that Leotah’s was. Every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month, Kind hosts a food co-op marketplace at Circle of Hope Church on Frankford and Norris from 6:00pm to 8:00pm. Kind has also already implemented a delivery service (you can order fresh coffee and tea via this form) and is planning on introducing a book store. Where Leotah’s had one computer available for public use, Kind is planning on installing two in Franny Lou’s.
“[At Leotah’s], people would come use the computer to look for jobs,” said Kind, “and that brought in a diverse amount of people.” She hopes that having two computers available for public use will bring in twice the amount of diversity.
Of course, the quality of her products is as important to Kind as a maintaining a hospitable environment. She touts Franny Lou’s as a “place to encourage and foster those who want to live simple, healthy, and aware lives.” All food and drink will be organic and ethically sourced. Still, Franny Lou’s aims to be more than just another coffee shop with healthy food alternatives — Kind’s vision of Franny Lou’s Porch acting as a catalyst for neighborly fellowship and open discussion in the East Kensington community trumps all.
“When we foster connections and coming together and supporting each other,” said Kind, “so many beautiful things can happen.”
Image via Leotah’s Place Coffeehouse Facebook-30-
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