Fire delays opening of new social enterprise café


Rising Grinds Café, a social enterprise of many nonprofits, could return with shipping containers as its primary structure. Courtesy Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation

On the morning of Nov. 19, firefighters responded to an engulfed building fire at 1530 Madison Ave. SE.

The 2,000-square-foot, 75-year-old wooden building was just about to undergo renovations that would give it new life as Rising Grinds Café, thanks to a partnership between the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, Bethany Christian Services, Building Bridges Professional Services, Tabernacle Community Church, and Double O Supply and Craftsman to create a new social enterprise venture in the community.

The building was destroyed, and firefighters do not know what caused the blaze. It likely will be rendered undeterminable, because too much evidence was destroyed in the effort to put the fire out before it spread.

Justin Beene, director of the Grand Rapids Center for Community Transformation, said the café was slated to open in May 2017, and two employees already had been hired to operate it.

“They are getting barista training through a partnership with Ferris Coffee, and we were sending them through a national retail and hospitality certification to get customer service and retail trained,” Beene said.

A group of 20 students, who are part of Youth Build, an intensive program for low-income young adults who complete their GED and simultaneously learn construction skills by building affordable housing or other community-based projects, also were planning to provide the renovation work on the building as part of their training.

Beene said the goal still is to open the café, but the timeline obviously will be different.

“All options are on the table, whether it’s this site or somewhere else in the neighborhood,” he said.

But Beene said the idea of constructing a new building on the site is less appealing than the plans to renovate an existing building.

“We got excited about renovating buildings, as we’re rebuilding lives,” he said. “The idea of a new building doesn’t excite anyone.”

Instead, he said the solution might be shipping containers.

“Can we get some old shipping containers and stack them and do a drive-thru and a rooftop deck or garden, and use some of the windows we’d already ordered and create a cool and unique look, something different that will fit with the vibe we want?” he said.

He said he also will be exploring the option of opening the incubator space where the barista training has been occurring to the public in an effort to begin generating revenue to support the café employees.

“We are going to work with the health department to see if our current incubation space can be approved so we could get some traffic flow from the public into the current space to sustain the jobs,” he said. “We had some funding through May, but by May, it has to generate revenue on its own.”

He said the construction students likely will be reassigned to work with the Inner City Christian Federation and Rockford Construction on the Tapestry Square project at LaGrave and Wealthy.

“It’s a 24-unit affordable housing project, and they will be part of that project,” he said.

Beene said creating Rising Grinds Café is an important effort in shifting the social services model.

“Thinking about how we move away from this traditional social service model — the rich give to the poor through a soup kitchen methodology — to one where everyone has dignity and capacity to work,” he said. “So, we provide jobs in which we move from a soup kitchen to a potluck, where everyone works and brings something to the table to share with other people.”

He said the partner organizations already have two other social enterprise businesses: a landscaping company and a window and door company, both of which are growing.

The businesses target young people ages 14-24 in the Madison Square neighborhood, giving them a job within the community.

“We create opportunities for transformation,” Beene said.

But he said the construction and landscaping jobs predominately have drawn in young men in the community, and the café was an attempt to create opportunities that might appeal to more young women in the neighborhood.

Beene said while Grand Rapids has a lot of resources and is regularly featured on national “best of” lists, including for philanthropy, the community also has the black eye of having landed on two worst of lists for African Americans.

“So, you have these two things juxtaposed,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s a resource issue, it’s an efficiency issue, trying to create efficiencies that, with the café and landscaping company, how do we move away from wealth transference to wealth creation? How do we expose young people to business ventures and business planning and, then, to ultimately be able to share the profits with them? Let’s create a more sustainable model with validity for scalability in other sectors.”

Beene said Rising Grinds Café will rise and hopes the project can resume quickly in 2017.

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