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Two Central District cafes facing closure point finger at Seattle City Hall

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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38 thoughts on “Two Central District cafes facing closure point finger at Seattle City Hall

    • But it’s not complex at all. She tried to run a coffee shop in a challenging spot and her product wasn’t very good, so she failed.

      It’s actually quite simple.

  1. I appreciate Mae’s point of view but she doesn’t explain how any of this actually falls on Sawant’s leadership (or lack thereof). Can anyone here fill in that blank?

  2. Sorry 701, this is on you. Your coffee was mediocre, you had limited hours (opening late and closing early, or barely opening on the weekend), and sometimes you weren’t even open when your sign said you would be.

    • It’s fairly shocking when you try to run in before you catch a 9AM bus only to find a COFFEE SHOP closed. At 9AM! On a weekday!

      I actually really liked their food, but it took ages and the baristas were always super grumpy. We happily walk the extra five blocks to Katy’s instead.

  3. Seriously? How shameless of these two business owners. Why should our city councilors concern themselves with a (notably terrible) coffee shop that’s only been open 2 years. Kshama has done more than anyone for truly local businesses that have been open for 10+ years in the Central District.

    • “Kshama has done more than anyone for truly local businesses that have been open for 10+ years in the Central District.”

      She has? What, specifically?

    • I second Jim’s questions. It’s easy to make a blanket statement that Kshama has done something, but you need to back it up with some examples. Mostly, she is all about herself and her socialist agenda, which does nothing at all for the people of her district.

  4. Recent development around 23rd has brought in a # of quality small businesses:
    +Wood Chop BBQ
    +Broadcast Cafe
    +Reckless Noodle
    +Standard Brewing
    +Squirrel Chops
    +Electric Lady Bicycle Shop
    +Feed Co. Burgers
    +Union Cafe
    +Street Treats

    All of these have popped up in the last 2-3 years and more to come when all the development on 23rd/Union and 23rd/Jackson is finished. Personally, with the influx of small businesses, it’s an exciting time to live in the CD!

    • Almost all of those businesses are owned by WHITE people, dude, and they cater to RICH WHITE PEOPLE. You just outlined basic gentrification.

      What is unspoken here is that this anger likely a result of the 23rd Ave construction last year which absolutely decimated traffic for a lot of businesses. I spoke with a couple of city officials who, before that project even started, were livid as to the damage this was going to do to the Central District. I believe one’s exact words were “they are going to kill the CD.”

      Also: i hear this complaint about Kshama from the MOST liberal, radical folks in the area, in addition to anti-socialists. She is not well liked at all and is notorious for stealing credit for activist wins (she swung in real late to steal the glory for the income tax from the Transit Rider’s Union).

      When the socialist is gathering “divisive” complaints from radicals, something is wrong.

  5. 701 Coffee chose to open on a street that was set for a major re-development years ago, definitely before they opened. The impact could have been anticipated by simply looking at the plans and ongoing construction on Phase 1 of the project, which was underway in 2015. Small businesses are risky (obvs), especially when you consider that this one was launched when the street was about to be closed off and wasn’t going to be very walkable/accessible… certainly not enough to ensure success for a new business. The coffee would have had to be amazing and have some impressive marketing behind it. I appreciate her plight for small businesses but she fails to make a valid argument for her particular situation. Tacos Chukis started as a very small business that went on to great success and is now expanding within its original local community. Her attempts at painting incoming businesses as less worthy of small business sympathies is rediculous. If it was Taco Bell, that would be a different story. I wish her well but she is clouding the struggle for small businesses in the CD with her combative rhetoric that fails to backup how Sawant has failed small businesses in the neighborhood and fails to offer anything but blame without constructive solutions.

    • I spend an awful lot of time and money in coffee shops in the CD — they’re my second office. All the ones I attend are small and locally owned (mostly Cortona, Tougo, Katy’s, and Broadcast).

      I gave 701 two chances, once when it first opened and another after the road construction was done. Both times I got mediocre coffee that wasn’t up the level of that in other neighborhood cafes. Food options were also limited compared to elsewhere, so I didn’t get any. One time I got OK service, and other time the young barista seemed like she was doing me a favor acknowledging my presence. I asked her a question about the wifi and I got an eyeroll. I never spent another penny there again.

      I’m quite surprised they survived as long as they did. Especially now that I hear about the owner’s “blame everyone but myself” attitude.

      Long live the many other independent and locally owned coffee shops in the CD that miraculously seem to be doing just fine.

    • Yeah but how is is Sawant’s fault that 701 had mediocre coffee, poor service, and strangely limited/random hours of operation with no parking?

    • She should’ve spent a couple of rush hours while people were stuck dead in traffic at 23rd and Cherry (thank you, “road diet”), stomping back and forth with a bullhorn screaming “small businesses need rent control!”.
      Savant would’ve been there every day for a month.

  6. I used to work at 23rd and Cherry, and I hardly ever bought coffee from 701. Their hours weren’t great and the place didn’t feel cozy enough to hang out in. It’s hard for me to see blaming a city council member for that business failing.

    • Agree Kshama doesn’t have much to do with the plight of 701 AND Kshama doesnt give two shits about CD small businesses … or any other real-world local issues in the CD

    • Sawant is not a savior. She is one person on a City Council. Your business was also affected by the Mayor’s office, King County Council, State Government, and other officials and of course community members. I would find your focus on Sawant more convincing if you also brought up the role of others involved. And as far as Yelp, first of all, Yelp has been proven to remove negative reviews for advertising revenue. Not saying that’s the case for your business, however it means I don’t trust Yelp at all. And there are negative reviews of your business here on this post and also on Yelp:

    • “Must have struck a nerve with Kshama supporters for my comments.”

      No, it’s this kind of dismissive attitude towards your potential patrons all over social media that kept many people away. Please stop with the deflection and blame, you’re embarrassing yourself.

    • I’ve never been to 701 so I have no idea whether it’s good or not, but Max is right about Yelp. Posting even a mildly critical review there is very difficult for some reason. I’ve tried several times, always with respect and equanimity (I thought) toward the business, and I’ve never had one accepted for public viewing. It’s hard to see it as a reliable source.

    • I actually really did like your food. It was fresh, tasty, and enjoyable. Never had complaints about the coffee, either.

      But it also took *ages* to prepare, your hours were sporadic at best, and the service was terrible. It took less time to walk the ~7 blocks to Golden Wheat and back than walk across the street to get food at 701 Coffee.

  7. I have NO sympathy for 701 Coffee. Not consistent with their hours, their coffee program was lacking. I mean, they started their business by asking vendors for samples and resold those! How can you build consistency with that business model. Business is tough in this city, if you aren’t always on your ‘A game’, customers will notice and they won’t come back. Best of luck to you.

  8. Why would Kshama help the petty bourgeoisie? They’re the first class the Marxists want to eradicate, along with the capitalists.

  9. A portion of the interview with 701 Coffee that appears to be left out of the article:

    “I do accept personal responsibility for the closing of 701 Coffee. The fight against the city in 2016, which caused a great deal of physical and emotional stress, and the financial pressure to assimilate into the new Central District “small business” fold had simply become too much. What I’m diligently working to make happen is getting someone in there that will carry that legit small business torch into the future.”

    • 23rd +/- a street between Jackson & Union is already saturated w/ quality, legit small business coffee shops and a relatively large Starbucks that’s frequently used as a community meet up spot. TBH there’s not much consumer capacity left for you/future owner to serve to.

  10. We tried to give 701 some business during the 23rd Street construction. The store was very dirty and we could see garbage on the kitchen floor from where we were standing by the counter. The ill-maintained few tables and chairs, in a large and inhospitable space, seemed an afterthought — not a pleasant place to be at all.
    The woman ahead of us in line ordered a smoothie and all three of the workers on duty became engaged in what was apparently a stressful search for a banana. All we wanted was coffee to go, but after a few minutes of bananaquest, we decided to leave. Not all “legit small businesses” are created equal — look at Cortona on Union for instance, a lovely coffee shop and an asset to the neighborhood.

  11. It’s a relief to see so many comments from residents and patrons countering 701’s deflection and misplaced blame. Frankly, I think we’re all getting a little tired of these repeated claims and the social media attention they somehow garner in spite of their obvious lack of foundation.

    I make a point to try new small businesses, but the reviews, atmosphere, and frequent strident rants by the owner only served to keep me loyal to Katy’s and Cortona, both of which are long time locals with wonderful staff and offerings.

  12. The problem is front and center in the article. The business owners say don’t meddle so much in our business. Mayor Durkins response is, how about we (the city) give you money instead. It is emblematic of the overall problem with city hall.

  13. It sounds like this coffee shop had bigger problems than Kshama, if the comments here about poor quality and service are true. But it does underscore a problem with our entire city council. While we all want every population to be represented, the one that’s missing is anyone on the council with business experience. A business person on the council would raise issues and have a perspective that people like Kshama would never bring up. Head taxes and how to fund the homeless problem. Easy to spend other people’s money

  14. These comments are awesome. And agree, there are plenty of small businesses doing just fine and its because their delivery of a good product and service. I’m a picky consumer and I shouldn’t have to apologize for it.

  15. I’m so sad to see Lake Chad leave! Felix is super nice and the ginger juice there is ammaaaaaazing. Ask for it heated up and you will instantly feel cozy! It’s also really good as a mixer.

    I recently had their catfish, which is baked and smothered in a tomato sauce, and plantains and I was amazed. I’m disappointed that I took so long to try the food. My friend had the Chadian sandwich and it was really good too!