Need milk? Check. Need a satisfying Philly cheesesteak for less than ten bucks? Also check.
Residents in Lincoln Park and the Mariposa District can grab both items and more at the relocated Osage Café and Mercado, a social enterprise bistro and supermarket run by the Denver Housing Authority and the Youth Employment Academy.
“We outgrew our space,” said operations manager Lori Laurita. “We’ve been open since 2013 and now we use that space for catering. Now we can train our youth in a café, in a grocery store and in wholesale production…And now we’re also the community grocery store.”
Osage Café first opened at 1099 Osage Street about nine years ago with the goal of providing youth in the Employment Academy an opportunity to learn about the food industry through culinary arts and business management. The goal was also to provide fresh and affordable food options to nearby residents.
Now, the Café does both while producing wholesale grab-and-go items that they sell to places like Meow Wolf. They are also offering supermarket goods for a neighborhood that needs a quick place to grab some eggs.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, an area is considered a food desert when at least 500 people, or 33 percent of the area population, lives more than one mile away from a supermarket or large grocery store. The Mariposa District isn’t exactly a food desert, but it’s close. A King Soopers on Speer Boulevard between 13th and 14th avenues is a little less than a mile away (.9 miles), which is about a 15 minute walk, according to Google Maps. There’s also the Sun Valley International Market that sells dry goods. Besides Buckhorn Exchange, one of the oldest restaurants in Denver, the nearest place for a quick bite to eat is Mcdonald’s on West Colfax.
“This definitely benefits the neighborhood,” said Aryssa Valdez. She’s a server and host at the Café. “A lot of people don’t have cars around here. They take the bus, especially the people in the nearby apartments. They tell us all the time how grateful they are to come over here and grab a grab-and-go item to eat real fast. Or the people getting off the light rail, they come in to get something to drink. Our grab-and-go items are cheap… and we offer free snacks for kids.”
Valdez is a long-time westside resident who learned about the Café and its programming from a relative. She’s a host and server who handles front of house needs such as restocking, checking out and also food prep, chopping veggies and making dressings and marinades for the cooks.
Oh, Valdez is also the in-house agua fresca aficionado. Her skills were on display Tuesday during the Café’s grand opening.
Residents burst through the Café when the doors opened at 2 p.m. and were greeted by the smell of fried chicken and egg rolls cooked by local residents. Executive chef William Mullinax was also cheffing it up in the back, cooking the Cafe’s staples such as the Philly cheesesteak, which Mullinax said is their best seller, and buffalo chicken wraps, which is Valdez’s favorite.
Mullinax has worked with YEA for several years, training the participants on the basics: food safety, knife skills, cooking and recipe reading, to name a few things. Students in the program can become certified and later intern at the Café. Mullinax said one of his past students is now his sous chef on the Café’s wholesale side.
“This is a dying trade,” Mullinax said. “It’s hard to find a cook out there or anyone that wants to cook. But everyone wants to eat. So I like to pass on the trade. I love to cook and make folks happy. It’s nice to help the students and teach them the culinary arts skills.”
On the supermarket side, fresh veggies and fruit lined the walls of the Café, some of which were harvested at DHA’s Grow Garden. Also lining the walls is artwork from YEA’s Art Street group, which similarly teaches youth employment skills through a creative lens.
The Café is open for breakfast and lunch Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Mercado is open Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Valdez and Mullinax said they hope the Café and market continue to grow and maybe even open up in new locations. As DHA continues to redevelop Sun Valley into a mixed-income neighborhood similar to the Mariposa District, the option for another market or social enterprise project is possible.
Laurita said ultimately the goal is to continue to create spaces with residents, for residents.
“We have so many different cultures here, and it’s just so important for people to feel welcome,” Laurita said. “We’ve surveyed this neighborhood for the last 10 years, and this has been created for our neighbors.”