Walking into the Seward Cafe in south Minneapolis, there are remnants of the past. An old sign saying no cell phones, permanent marker covering the bathroom walls with messages, flyers for events passed — it’s a time capsule of the Seward neighborhood.
In 1974, the iconic Seward Cafe entered the scene as a cooperatively owned and collectively operated restaurant by the Radical Roots Collective, a group of Twin Cities residents. With its punk shows, anarchist meetings and beloved breakfasts, it became a staple of the community in south Minneapolis and is the oldest worker-owned restaurant in the U.S., according to collective members.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cafe closed in its original iteration. The vision shifted toward emergency effort relief and work with mutual aid groups such as Southside Food Share to distribute meals, groceries, personal protective equipment, hygiene items and other household goods across the city.
Many past collective members left as COVID continued — they had other obligations and bills to pay. There wasn’t enough labor to keep people around.
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After a soft launch in May, collective members, the vast majority who are new, have been hard at work getting the space back into shape by relaunching previous efforts such as offering free clothing and food and running a community garden.
A 2020 GoFundMe that raised more than $36,000 has been used in part to restart coffee service, pay new hires and reapply for necessary licenses, according to collective member Tess Late.
There are currently nine collective members that share ownership over the building — each member owns one-ninth, according to collective member Ro Lorenzen. They each have different jobs like community planning, public relations and cafe operations but there is no hierarchical order and all members are equal.
Collective members said they are ready to bring back the Seward Cafe but with a bit of a different vision.
“There’s a lot more folks aligned with the reality that our community is diverse and ready to reach out to those that are marginalized in our world. We are headed toward that diversity that we want, but it is still a work in progress,” said Lorenzen. The collective previously was made up mostly of white people.
For Lorenzen, it was an easy choice to join the collective. They see the next phase of the cafe as initiating community in a healing way, something they feel like hasn’t been done by many similar spaces.
“We will do anything in our power to meet needs. we have a lot of resources and people have reached out wanting to help — we won’t turn people away,” they said.
A part of a bigger movement
Erik Riese has been a customer of the cafe since the 1970s. They remember walking in the cafe in 1975 and seeing a small bar and limited seating. Riese said at 20 years old they couldn’t imagine a better place to be.
Riese owned a worker cooperative in the 1980s in south Minneapolis, New Riverside Cafe and has been offering advice on relaunching Seward Cafe but did not pursue joining the collective, instead opting to leave more room for new leadership
“I want to put this community asset in the hands of Black and Brown women — they have stories to tell, they have a world to make and I think it should be made there [at the cafe] …There’s so much history — the punk, anarchist aesthetic but also this cooperative, collective movement that can sometimes be beautiful and other times chaotic and messy but it always has opportunity,” Riese said.
A warm meal had been a constant for the cafe previously — it was known for its “Earth Breakfast” options featuring hashbrowns and eggs — so some patrons were surprised when the soft opening was accompanied with only coffee and tea drinks. Collective member Tessa Late explained that the cafe is still getting off the ground and exploring different ways to serve the community.
“It’s being generative to build a mutual aid economy and when I think about it like that, with folks that are dealing with housing insecurity, homelessness, or whatever — we are a coffee shop, we can’t provide thousands of people housing but we can be a piece of an ecosystem to address it,” Late said.
However, the collective decided to try offering breakfast service for the first time in more than three years. It will be held Friday, July 14 and Saturday, July 15 from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for $15 a plate. (Their normal hours are 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.) They will offer weekend breakfast and brunch, with limited items available during the week.
Being a cafe is just a part of what the future holds, Lorenzen and Late said. They are gearing up for punk shows, free produce giveaways, art exhibits, a scrapbook wall and a “rebirth” benefit on Aug. 5 with live music, local artists, fresh food and a silent auction.