Minneapolis cafe, worker-run since 1974, reopens with new vision (and brunch)

A building that reads seward cafe
Seward Cafe opened in 1974 in south Minneapolis. After a closure of their regular operations due to COVID-19, the worker-owned venue is reopening with a focus on diverse efforts.
Sam Stroozas | MPR News

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.

A bulletin board full of flyers
Bulletin boards in Seward Cafe in Minneapolis showcase local events and community needs.
Sam Stroozas | MPR News

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 menu with green and white coloring
Seward Cafe is introducing the Earth Brunch over July 14 and July 15.
Courtesy of Seward Cafe

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.

The inside of a cafe
An interior look at Seward Cafe in Minneapolis ahead of their opening.
Sam Stroozas | MPR News

“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 yellow sign says stuff should be free with blue flowers
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.
Sam Stroozas | MPR News

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

A sign with a cell phone and a red x around it
An old no cell phone sign at the Seward Cafe. The cafe has been around for nearly 50 years.
Sam Stroozas | MPR News

“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.

A sign reads caution bees at work
Seward Cafe has been working on their community garden that they will use to make fresh meals.
Sam Stroozas | MPR News

“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. 

The entrance to a greenspace
The entrance to the green space and garden at the Seward Cafe in Minneapolis.
Sam Stroozas | MPR News