Photo by Nicole NeSmith

Beelove Café cultivates a warm, eclectic ambiance, but their work is rooted in the concept of community.

The nonprofit Café opened in August 2021 and “provides customers with a high-quality, hand-crafted, coffee experience, specialty drinks, salads, and pastries prepared by local entrepreneurs of color.”

Founder Brenda Palms Barber said Beelove was designed to be a welcoming gathering place that fosters joy and pride and promotes community partnerships. 

“Our cafe offers access to resources, the opportunity to meet your neighbors, a quiet place to study, or just people-watching while enjoying a Beelove honey-infused glass of lemonade. The Beelove cafe is community wealth-building in action, through coffee and conversation.”

The Café is the newest social enterprise of the North Lawndale Employment Network. Beelove was made possible due to the success of Sweet Beginnings LLC, a subsidiary of the Network, which offers full-time transitional jobs to formerly incarcerated people. The work includes the production and sales of all-natural skin care products featuring urban honey under the Beelove brand. The company manages apiaries throughout Chicagoland and has trained over 500 people since 2008.

“We found that there were many people who were looking for jobs but weren’t even given an opportunity to interview for positions,” said Sergio Dukes, Director of Operations. “The demand was there, and we knew we could fill some of that gap.”

What sets the café apart, however, isn’t just their great coffee, pastries and reasonable prices; it’s the bighearted community partnership. They source their coffee from Metropolis, a Chicago staple, and pastries from Trini’s Tasty Pastries, a local entrepreneur, as just two examples. The Café has hosted many free educational events, live music, art exhibits, and informal meetings centered on themes with community members.

Some of their partnerships include the Chicago Public Library, Art West, the I AM ABLE Center for Family Development, and Open Books, a nonprofit bookstore with thousands of donated used books for adults and kids. A few of their events have centered on International Women’s Day, “The Stigma of the Black Woman,” “Guitars not Guns,” LGBTQ+ shows, and more.

“The café serves as a conduit to uplift people,” Sergio said. “This place is for everyone. People who live in our community work there as well, and you’ll keep seeing the same faces.”

One of those faces is Tyshena Cage, the Café’s Supervisor since December 2021. While she was making me an almond milk vanilla latte with Beelove honey (delicious), she was smiling and chatting with her co-worker and dancing to their chosen music.

“I love working here because we get to express our individuality—hair, shoes, clothes, personality. Doesn’t matter who you are, we don’t discriminate.”

Hearing everything they accomplished in just one lightning fast year, I asked them how they not only kept their head above water but excelled and made their own unique footprint in the neighborhood. The Beelove team admits their biggest challenge was starting a new business during the pandemic, but they pushed forward and have been met with encouragement all along the way. Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, Governor Pritzker and the President of Microsoft have all visited the Café. Donors include the Lincoln Park Zoo, Heartland Alliance, Bank of America, and iHeart Media Chicago, among many others. 

Sergio said seeing everything come together “almost like magic” was very special.

“The idea was there for a while before we were able to start the Café. And what the Café is today evolved from need. We see this as a place of service. We are a small, tight-knit group, and we’re all hands on deck. And we want to work with our community partners as much as possible. We’re not in the art business or music business or book business, but we want to provide as much of that magic as possible. The way we do that is to give our partners control over their vision. We want to give them that space.” 

Beelove’s next big event, on September 29, is a collaboration with Art West called “Spread Love.”

Beelove Café, 1111 S. Homan Ave. Monday–Friday 7am–4pm, Saturday 8am–2pm. (773) 265-7945.

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