Whittier Cafe might not survive the sale of its building, and regulars are ready to help

It’s more than a coffee shop — it’s a neighborhood “safe space” and a hub for political action.
4 min. read
Whittier Cafe, May 30, 2018. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

The Whittier Cafe is a hub of activism and a neighborhood institution. Plus it happens to serve great coffee, Ethiopian beer and breakfast, regulars say.

Now its future is uncertain.

The owner of the coffee shop announced via Facebook on Sunday that the landlord of 1710 E. 25th Ave. is under contract with a buyer.

"Community, Whittier Cafe is in jeopardy due to the building's pending sale," wrote business owner Millete Birhanemaskel. "Any lawyers in the community willing to help?"

A trust in the name of Mohamad Ahmad Jodeh owns the building, according to city records. The landlord informed Birhanemaskel of the sale via email, Birhanemaskel wrote, adding that she's in the middle of a lease but "can tell from the landlord's email he's looking for a way out."

The bathroom inside Whittier Cafe is filled with protest signs. (David Sachs/Denverite)

Birhanemaskel has not responded to interview requests from Denverite and Jodeh could not be reached.

Whether the cafe stays put depends on its lease contract, according to attorney Carolin Topelson, who specializes in disputes between commercial tenants and landlords. The document might simply transfer the lease to the new owner, or it could allow for the lease to be terminated upon sale.

"It's going to completely depend on what the lease provisions say," Topelson said.

Attorney Aaron Goldhamer said he has an appointment with Birhanemaskel on Wednesday to review the terms and advise her. Having not seen the lease, it's unclear what the cafe owner's recourse is at this time, he said.

On Monday morning, the cafe hummed with conversation and the whoosh of an espresso machine. Regulars were already brainstorming ways to save the business if necessary.

The cafe came around in 2014. Its stature in the neighborhood had Ariel Lipscomb, a leader in the local Black Lives Matter movement, calling the bistro "a safe space" and the prospect of its loss "heartbreaking."

"I don't know if it's the official reason they might have to leave, but it seems like it's the same reason that everything seems to be leaving," Lipscomb said, referring to displacement from gentrification. She once lived in Whittier but moved to Swansea.

Whittier Cafe is a black-owned business that has headquartered the local Black Lives Matter chapter, among other activism. Political yard signs are common decor for the coffee shop's tree lawn.

Last May, it was defaced with racist graffiti.

The Whittier Cafe. (David Sachs/Denverite)

Birhanemaskel hosts art shows, open mics and community discussions. She recently organized a tour of Ethiopia for locals and last summer hosted a mommy meet-up for Black and Latina Breastfeeding Week.

Saladin Thomas, another regular, only visits two coffee shops: Whittier Cafe and Coffee at the Point, another black-owned business.

"That part's kind of important to me," Thomas said. "So cutting down those choices feels like it's detrimental to the neighborhood overall."

Thomas said he finds irony in Whittier Cafe's potential demise, given the fact that Ink! Coffee bragged about gentrifying River North and still serves customers.

Thomas Bell, who sits at Whittier Cafe three times a week, said the news of a possible closure was hard to hear.

"I think for ... local communities to have the space together is important," Bell said. "I mean, it's for some communities what barber shops have been -- just like, community partners."

If any community can come to the rescue, Lipscomb and Thomas said it's Whittier.

"I genuinely believe this might be an example of the community that could find a way to buy the building," Thomas said.

Lipscomb suggested visiting Whittier Cafe instead of chain stores, like Starbucks.

"There's a lot of coffee shops around here, but it would be a really easy task to just choose this one if it's in danger," Lipscomb said. "Maybe don't go to Starbucks once this week. You'll have a drive-thru if you do, but (Birhanemaskel) won't be there to smile at you."

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