They both have become familiar faces whenever Central District small businesses are being discussed — usually in the context of the next big development or the next big infrastructure project promised to bring change to the neighborhoods their cafes have called home. Neighbors are now saying their goodbyes to Felix Ngoussou’s Jackson St. Lake Chad Cafe and Sara Mae’s 701 Coffee.
The 23rd and Cherry cafe owner Mae said she takes personal responsibility for 701’s closure but said she also lays blame with Seattle City Hall and District 3 representative Kshama Sawant for what she predicts will be a wave of Central District closures:
701 is just one in a line of real small businesses in the Central District that have been forced to close. We aren’t the first, and certainly won’t be the last. I firmly believe this trend will continue. There’s certainly no elected official—Kshama—that is going to give two shits about the plight of Central District Small Businesses. We have an elected official in the Central District who isn’t willing to devote some of her time and political capital to assuring that there is prosperity on the horizon for Central District small businesses. Instead she has created a movement that is based on resentment, and divisive political rhetoric that serves no purpose but to hold power, and keep people who are struggling trapped in a cycle of spinning their wheels, waiting for her precious cake. Frankly, all we have received in the aggregate from Kshama in all of this is Central District small business circumstances that has worsened under her reign.
701 Coffee debuted in 2015 at 23rd and Cherry, offering coffee, community, and vegan meals and snacks. It soon found itself in the middle of a fight between 23rd Ave businesses and the city over the lack of mitigation funding to hep small businesses weather construction to overhaul the street for better driving, transit, and pedestrian safety. City Hall eventually capitulated with a $650,000 mitigation fund.
“I remember back during the fight for 23rd that all of our small businesses were in the midst of, it took nearly a month just to get Kshama to the table,” Mae said of the push for funding. “She only did what we as a group of small businesses forced her to do, and even then she was eager to know how she could capitalize on the political momentum that was created in order to further her political goals.”
UPDATE: We’ve reached out to Sawant’s office to see if the council member wanted to respond to Mae’s criticisms. Mayor Jenny Durkan, earlier this year, formed the city’s first Small Business Advisory Council.
UPDATE x2: Durkan, coincidentally, has announced the award of $1.4 million in funding to support small businesses “owned by historically disenfranchised communities in Seattle, including immigrants and refugees, people of color, women, veterans, people with disabilities, and the LGTBQ community.”
“Our small businesses are an economic engine in Seattle, and they create the rich texture and culture of our neighborhoods and our entire City,” said Mayor Durkan. “These investments from the City of Seattle are focused on making sure our small businesses have the tools they need to thrive, to create good-paying jobs, and to keep building economic opportunity.” Awarded through the City’s Office of Labor Standards’ (OLS) Business Outreach and Education Fund, the funding supports local organizations’ outreach, education and compliance assistance efforts to Seattle’s small businesses in those communities, helping ensure they have the tools they need to fulfill their responsibilities under Seattle’s labor laws. This includes City laws such as: Minimum Wage, Wage Theft, Paid Sick and Safe Time, Fair Chance Employment, Secure Scheduling and the Hotel Employees Health and Safety ordinance.
Recipients of the funding “will emphasize outreach to employers not typically served by traditional methods: businesses owned by low-income and historically disenfranchised communities, including immigrants and refugees and people of color, as well as women, veterans, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community,” according to the announcement. “Grant recipients will engage and build relationships with local small businesses through a range of activities, including holding workshops, direct outreach, providing linguistically appropriate information, and offering ongoing support to business owners in neighborhoods across the City on issues like recordkeeping compliance and economic development,” the mayor’s office says.
The City selected five organizations to receive funding for a two-year period, including Ngoussou’s Seattle Business Education Hub:
- Seattle Business Education HUB – $164,050.00
- Latino Community Fund – $282,966.00
- Ethnic Chambers of Commerce Coalition (ECCC) – $565,960.00
- Ethnic Business Coalition (EBC) – $275,590.00
- Ventures – $111,434.00
Ngoussou’s Lake Chad debuted on Jackson in 2014 and grew into a coffee shop and night spot featuring live music and African cuisine. “My coffee shop has another objective,” Ngoussou said at the time, “I want to open a community place where all these small businesses around can come and meet.”
Ngoussou said he agrees with Mae’s assessment that more Central District small business closures will come — “too much taxes and harassment from different regulations,” Ngoussou says.
The cafe is currently up for sale. Ngoussou said changes in his family’s work and his own work running the Seattle Business Education Hub mean he has to let Lake Chad go.
Both are correct that the rate of change along 23rd Ave has accelerated. 23rd and Union’s Midtown Center is lined up for a major redevelopment bringing together market rate developer Lake Union Partners, nonprofit developer Capitol Hill Housing, and community developer Africatown. Meanwhile, the fences are going up around 23rd and Jackson where Vulcan is set to redevelop the shopping center home to the now-shuttered Red Apple. Demolition should begin in February.
But there are signs that not all small businesses will be wiped away with the changes. It’s only one example, but Vulcan announced a new lease and location for one of the tenants of the Promenade 23 shopping center — Berhane Amanuel and his East African Imports are moving to 306 23rd Ave S. Meanwhile, CHS reported that Med Mix has reopened in the Central District with a new shop on Jackson just west of 23rd and Broadway-born Tacos Chukis has lined up a new home for expansion at 23rd and Union.
Mae takes a pessimistic view of the changes:
At this rate legit Central District small businesses will one by one be tossed into the trash heap of the past, and what lies ahead in the future it seems is a Central District small business community that appears to be such, but has big money behind them. They manufacture that Central District Small Business feel, but it’s a facade and we all know it.
“Most real small business owners took what little money they had and embarked on making a dream reality,” she writes. “What is real small business? A legit small business has an owner that starts from nearly nothing, and fights every day to bring their dream to fruition. Not just for their self, but their family. It is THE original entrepreneurial spirit. It’s people rising up out of the indignity of poverty. It’s exercising ones sovereignty as a conscious, free being. It harnessing what little freedom and liberty at their disposal, and taking that chance on something that could not only put food on the table, and free them from low income housing and EBT, but it can send their kids to college.”
“It’s an avenue to break through intergenerational poverty, and all of the ills that come with it,” she says. “The struggle was always more internal for us than external. 701 was our fight to break free of something that my mother/father, their mothers/fathers simply weren’t able to do: Break free of poverty.”
We asked Mae if she might consider a run against Sawant should the city council member decide to run for reelection. “Kshama has overstayed her welcome with me,” Mae said. “It’s time for a reboot.”
UPDATE: Ngoussou is holding a fundraiser Saturday to try to keep Lake Chad open:
Join us at Lake Chad Cafe for live jazz music, community, African art raffle and great food! This is a place where community comes together, where people take care of each other and where people who are rapidly getting pushed out of this neighborhood still have a place. Our goal is to turn the café into a community co-op to serve the people.
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