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Falling on Hard Times
Just off the busy intersection of Cedar and Riverside, a stone’s throw from the University of Minnesota, the Hard Times Café sat dark. The furniture was stacked, the counters were empty. Light filtered in through the handwritten signs plastering the front windows, expressing increasingly pessimistic predictions of a re-opening date. A group of Hard Times workers were sitting in one of the vacant booths next to the coffee bar—by the time I showed up, they had already finished their meeting.
On a normal day (or night or almost any other time) in October, the Hard Times Café would be a hive of activity. Walking inside, you’d hear the clatter of dishes, the hiss of the grill and a buzz of conversation as varied in language and character as the patrons themselves. The culture of the café is inseparable from that of the West Bank where it is located, a neighborhood with a long, sometimes tumultuous, history as a mixing ground for new immigrants and new ideas. The espresso machine is plastered with a collage of articles relating to neighborhood issues and the café itself, and the walls hold work by local artists.
For those interested in supporting the café and its unemployed workers, they have a Myspace account: www.myspace.com/hardtimesmpls
Encouraging letters, food, monetary donations, beer and cigarettes can also be sent to: 1821 Riverside Ave, Minneapolis, MN 55454
The Benefit Concert and Raffle for Brian Monroe will be held November 11 at the Bedlam theatre at 1501 S, 6th street on the West Bank. More information is available at: www.bedlamtheatre.org
When the café closed back in August to complete improvements recommended by a routine heath inspection, they budgeted for one month, expecting to re-open in time for fall semester at the University of Minnesota. Due to what appears to be a series of bureaucratic tangles in the city's permitting process, they have been unable to re-open.
In the tradition of several Minneapolis institutions, notably the now-defunct New Riverside Café, also located on the West Bank, the Hard Times operates as a collective. In its cooperative business model, the workers are also the owners, and all business decisions are made democratically. Among other things, that means no bosses, and an equal share of the profits and losses. It also means that when things get rough, the burden falls on everyone.
“It’s a one step forward, two steps back kind of thing,” says Graham Baldwin who, like many of the other workers, has spent a great deal of time and energy attempting to navigate the city's permitting departments. Following modifications required by a routine health inspection, the city returned with a second list of improvements, including updating the ventilation system. The city later required the café to submit a Food Review Plan, a detailed series of documents and paperwork. Owners of other local restaurants said this was an unusual requirement, though according to Curt Fernandez, manager of the cities Environmental Health Department, it is normally implemented any time a food establishment makes “considerable changes” in the kitchen.
The café workers, rawing on their varied employment histories, have done many of the improvements themselves, often without pay. Some things, like the ventilation system modifications, had to be contracted out.
For Brian Monroe, a long-time barista at the café, these months have been particularly tough. He’s a single parent and and he recently was diagnosed with cancer, for which he’s undergoing chemotherapy. The absence of a paycheck has made this situation even more challenging than it would have been under normal circumstances, and his friends and fellow workers have organized a benefit concert and raffle to try to help cover the bills.
Xist, another worker, is still unsure what to do in this state of limbo. “I don’t know if I should find a another job, or if we’ll open tomorrow,” he says. He worries that if he did get another job, he would just have to quit when the Hard Times re-opens. He would do so because, as with the other workers, his connection to the café goes much deeper than a paycheck.
“The café is unique, because it is very much a reflection of the neighborhood,” co-owner Jason Buckendorf points out. “It’s the one place in the city where you’ll see East Africans all hanging out with college students all playing chess, and young punk rock kids to people who just came into the city for the night."
Xist also sees his work on the graveyard shift at the 22-hour a day café as somewhat political. In his youth in New Orleans, he escaped an attack from a Nazi group by taking refuge in a 24-hour café. Xist feels that Minneapolis does not have a long tradition of supporting late night culture, pointing out that it has few all-night cafés. He hopes to maintain the Hard Times as a late-night safe space for those who come there for a conversation or a meal, as well as those who might have nowhere else to go.
Carl Snarl moved here from New York City in the early 90s, and still vividly remembers the first day he walked in to the Hard Rock Café. “I just fell in love with the place right away, and, I mean, I was one of the guys who used to sleep on the floor.” (That practice is no longer allowed.) Snarl is now an owner and member of the collective.
The café also tries to be responsible to communities outside of their own. Their famously strong French-press coffee is always fair trade sourced, yet the cost still remains around a dollar a cup. The café buys as much other food as they can afford from local farms and small businesses, while keeping the menu affordable to the average West Bank resident.
David Markle, a “long time West-Banker,” describes it as “a community program that operates very well without government funding.”
Despite the hurdles and hardships, the café has received help from many places. Several other collective businesses in town have given their support, including the Seward Café, which extended a loan for new merchandise when the café re-opens and has offered shifts at their restaurant to Hard Times employees to help them cover their own bills. Buckendorf describes the Seward as a “big sister” to the Hard Times, because it has been around for 30 years and both cafés share many common goals.
The Cedar Riverside Business Association submitted a letter to the city praising the café as an asset to the neighborhood and business community. City councilman Cam Gordon, who normally holds office hours at the café has also expressed his support, according to the workers, though saying that there is not much he can do at this point.
Since so many aspects of the process have been out of their hands, the workers have not been able to set a date to open their doors. At the latest, they hope to be back in operation by the café's birthday, November 17, and are eager to get back to business in a neighborhood some say needs them as much as they need it.
Xist summed it up, “ Outside of the convenience store down the block, I can’t think of another place in this neighborhood everyone can come to.”
Josh Ingram is a French press coffee enthusiast who fixes bicycles in Minneapolis.
©2007 Josh Ingram