Courtesy of Kusanya

Kusanya Cafe had been brewing as an idea in Englewood long before it served its first cup. For five years its board of directors struggled to find financing or an affordable space for the proposed café. It finally opened last November, to appreciative, even glowing reviews, but the café has always aimed to be more than a coffee shop. It’s an idealistic place, with hopes of neighborhood empowerment, but one that knows the limits of its resources. Kusanya wants first to be a place where people can meet over coffee, within the neighborhood, and to see where things go from there. Before the café took over the previously vacant, hundred-year-old building at 825 W. 69th Street, that was something Englewood didn’t have. And Phil Sipka, who runs the café’s operations, says it’s still hard to picture how a for-profit café in Englewood could work—Kusanya is a 501(c)(3). I sat down with Sipka to talk about Kusanya’s vision for the neighborhood, who’s behind it, and how it’s panning out. 

The door says this café is “Englewood owned.” What does that mean?

We want to be a kind of homegrown space. We don’t plan that many events but we try to let people who are passionate about something do what they do best here. We’ve had knitting groups come in, we’ve had a bunch of local authors come and do book signings here. We’ve had a local karaoke artist put on karaoke nights for us. We’ve had a local nonprofit put on yoga nights here. We’ve done storytelling events, we’ve done a wine tasting. These are all put on by people who say, “I really want to do this in the neighborhood”—they can do it here. We didn’t think we were the best ones to dictate what Englewood needs; we wanted to let Englewood decide. We want it to feel like it’s theirs. We want people to have control.

How do these events get set up? Do people just reach out to you, do you reach out to people you know…?

We haven’t really reached out at all. Most people come in, come to us, and say, “I’d really like to host an event here.” Our thing is, we love to host things that are open for the neighborhood, that’s really important to us. When you host something, it’s not a locked-door event; we want this to be a place where resources are shared. We like things to be open to the public, we like things to be free. Our thing is, if you’re going to be free, if you’re going to be giving things out for free, then we’re going to be free with this space: we’ll let you use it for free. Those are the kinds of events we like to do. So yoga night, karaoke night, the wine tasting night, those were all free.

We want to be self-sustaining, which means we don’t have to lie and BS our way into money all the time. In a certain sense you have to hustle as a nonprofit, you have to exaggerate what you do, and that’s not something we ever want to do. We want to be able to do what we think is best for the neighborhood, and to be honest, what we thought was best was just providing a space for things to happen. We can’t control anything that happens. We can allow a place for empowering interactions to occur but we can’t force them to occur. And that’s the hardest thing.

The problems that Englewood has faced have been happening, and it’s going to take decades, decades of justice to counter the injustice that’s happened. This coffee shop being on this corner is not going to change the neighborhood in any respect—it’s just not, at least in terms of a lot of the major swings. But, hopefully, it will provide a few empowering things for some people. If it even kind of begins to change the way people feel about their neighborhood, and feel about themselves, that’s a victory, I think, for us. It begins small. It begins by going to a place that respects you, that doesn’t treat you like a criminal.

I don’t know where else in the neighborhood that could happen, to be honest with you.

The café has gotten a lot of press so far, but most of it has focused on the opening (Kusanya opened last fall, on November 19). What are your thoughts on how the café space has turned out over the past year? 

In some ways it’s been better than I expected, and in some ways it’s been worse. One thing we weren’t sure of, which was the major x-factor, was would the totality of Englewood residents get it. Englewood residents are very diverse. And by “get it” I mean understand the concept, come and patronize, come and enjoy it, and make it their space.

There are a lot of different types of residents who live in the neighborhood. You could be a seventy-year-old resident whose kids have graduate degrees, who’s worked in the Loop, and who’s been living here since the fifties—very staunchly middle class, almost affluent. And then you have someone who came in five years ago after Cabrini got shut down, or Robert Taylor. There’s a really wide variety, more so, I think, than in most neighborhoods; it’s not racially diverse at all, but can we appeal to that wide of a swath of people? Because I think everybody doesn’t feel comfortable with everyone else, to a certain extent.

Financially I thought we’d be doing better than we are right now. I thought we’d be getting more people in than we are right now, but most of that I think is due to the fact that we opened in the wintertime, during one of the worst winters in Chicago history. We started building momentum in May but then school was out and we kind of had to start all over again. We’ve never really had a good month to be open yet, as a coffee shop; coffee shops are generally slower during the summer.

Part of our model, to get that diversity, is to price ourselves really well. We’re cheap for a normal coffee shop, we wanted everybody to be able to afford something here. So we have a one dollar cup of coffee, if you get it for here, and that’s cheaper than Burger King. But that also means we have to have more people in here to make a profit. We’re going for the low-profit margin, high-volume model, and that fits more with what we want—we want to get more and more types of people in here.

You use Bridgeport Coffee, though. That’s good coffee, but it’s also pretty expensive…

We spend a lot of money on coffee. We didn’t want to be cheap, we didn’t to say, “Oh, it’s just Englewood, they’re not going to care or notice if the coffee’s really good or not.” No, we wanted to do a shop that’s not just good for Englewood but good in terms of the city of Chicago, and place it right in the center of the neighborhood. That was what we wanted. That was the vision, because everyone deserves a really nice place.

But for right now, we’re just not getting enough people in yet. Hopefully we have enough reserves in the tank to make it to that point. In the meantime we’ll have to do fundraisers to keep the bills paid and stuff like that. Our model is that generosity will come back to you. And we’re a no profit, if you can’t be generous with that you should get out of the game.

How often do you have events here? 

It depends, but probably three or four events a month.

That’s different from a lot of coffee shops—any coffee shop.

It’s kind of an inconvenience if you don’t have a heart for it. It doesn’t bring a lot of money, it’s usually not worth the time—but that’s not what we’re here for. We don’t think in terms of dollars, we try to think in terms of what’s empowering for the neighborhood. We try to do that in terms of who we hire, who we have on the board, what art we hang up—all that stuff goes through that filter.

It took you five years to get a space and set up shop. What was that like? I read somewhere that a major problem was that banks wouldn’t lend to you.

They won’t lend to commercial development, they don’t see it as a good financial decision. There are gigantic barriers. They’ll only lend to people who have pretty much all the cash on hand, and then you wouldn’t need a loan.

The owner of the building, who’s on our board, has tried multiple times, even with the more socially conscious banks, but they won’t lend a dime. Commercial development is so hard here. An Englewood resident can’t develop property in the neighborhood because they have no access to credit. Everything’s a large bank now, and they have so many limitations that they can’t give out any money. If someone wanted to start up a for-profit coffee shop in the neighborhood, I don’t know how they’d do it.

You’re determining the fate of the neighborhood, in terms of who you lend to. The more I live here the more I realize how many outside factors determine who builds this neighborhood, and how little opportunities we have to kind of change our own stars, to a certain degree. There are so many things that impact us that we can’t change—and bank lending is one.

What’s the makeup of your board? What are the meetings like, and what’s the mentality? What are there expectations for this place?

Well, we’ve had a lot of people on the board. We had two full boards serve two full terms before we even opened. Demond was on the board for a time, he runs Englewood Codes. He did it for a while. Asiaha and Tyree Butler who do R.A.G.E., they were on the board for a while. There’ve been a lot of people, in and out. You know, it was hard to be on our board, because for so long we were so unsuccessful, we couldn’t even get a space, but everybody kind of had the same vision to a certain extent were on the board for a while. There’ve been a lot of people-centered mentality. The kind of “for us, by us” model—it was always kind of unanimous.

Correction October 28, 2014: An earlier version of this interview misspelled Tyree Butler’s name. It is Tyree Butler, not Terry Butler.

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