Four Cafes and a Pandemic: How South End Coffee Hubs Survive, Thrive, and Fuel Community Amid COVID

by Ari McKenna (photos by Zion Thomas) 

The owners of four beloved South Seattle cafes — Beach Bakery, Cafe Avole, Cafe Red, and The Station — recount the stories of their opening, discuss the impact of the pandemic, and look cautiously towards the future.

Beach Bakery

Amy O’Connell of Beach Bakery (Photo: Zion Thomas)

Beach Bakery’s proprietor, Amy O’Connell, has been around the block and back in food service, whether it’s waiting tables, cooking diner food, bartending, washing dishes, or cooking gourmet cuisine. She’s sought further insight, travelling on a shoestring budget to experience the food cultures of various countries in Europe and provinces of Mexico. Amy’s also been to hell and back. Fortunately for the South End, she eventually figured out exactly how she wanted to express herself in the industry: “The more down to earth, the more comfortable food is, the more comforting food is, the better I am with it, and the better I am sharing it with other people.”

Amy grew up in the Rainier Beach neighborhood, but lived for a spell of her 20s in Denver, where she found herself struggling with mental illness. On the verge of a nervous breakdown, and coping by drinking an “unimaginable amount” of alcohol, it got to a point that her older brother Ed — then a father of two girls — tried to intervene before her downward spiral was complete. Ed asked his sister how he should frame her impending death to his young daughters. Amy says imagining her nieces finally broke through to her, when nothing else had, because, she says, “That’s not the story you want those girls to know about the women in their life.”

After moving back home, sober but shaken, Amy worked at yet another food service job, but in the evenings, she began listening to herself, and thinking things over. “I realized that when I had a stressful day I always came home and made cookies or made a cake, or when someone had a birthday they always asked me to do something. Baking is a stress release for me.” She decided to try baking school, and a different path was set.

Beach Bakery opened in 2016 and has principally served the Rainier Beach, Dunlap, and Brighton neighborhoods. Amy says there were regulars from West Seattle and Renton, and people who worked in the area — especially teachers — who would routinely stop in before work at area schools before classes shifted to remote learning during the pandemic. Her delicious pastries are still shipped out to five different locations, seven days a week, among them Seattle Fish Guys (for their program to feed the homebound), and Boon Boona in Renton — whose coffee she sells in her bakery.

Forced to close down from April 1 to mid-May due to COVID-19, Amy feels like her prior experience dealing with anxiety prevented her from worrying too much about whether her cafe would make it or not. She actually found herself relieved. “I’d been working 75–80 hours a week [at Beach Bakery] for four years, and missing birthdays and not there for things. I felt like I was late to my entire life.” While she didn’t receive any government grants or loans, Beach Bakery did benefit from a fundraiser organized by community members who were adamant that the business make it out of the other side of this pandemic.

Since reopening in May, Beach Bakery now does about two-thirds of its normal sales and Amy is unsure how much longer the business can be sustained at that level — even though her only employees at this point are a baker and a barista.

All five of Amy’s niecesBella, Kylea, Solonie, Anna, and Missyare looking forward to working their first shifts at Beach Bakery when they’re old enough and if it’s able to weather the rest of this storm. Worst comes to worst, Amy says, she remains willing to give out any and all of her grandma Geraldine’s recipes, but is not sure people will be able to replicate their Beach Bakery favorites at home, because, she muses with a knowing grin, “I have a connection with butter that’s cosmic.”

Cafe Avole

Solomon Dubie of Cafe Avole. (Photo: Zion Thomas)

At a Stumptown Coffee Roasters’ tasting sometime near the beginning of the 21st century, Solomon Dubie had an epiphany. While testing fine coffees from around the world, he found himself waiting with increasing eagerness for the final, Ethiopian cup of the tasting. Almost done with college, his future still undecided, Solomon found that his family’s past was on his mind.

The son of parents who immigrated to Seattle from Ethiopia, he’d grown up aware that the coffee ceremonies in his living room distinguished his family’s culture, but he’d taken what was inside the cup — the coffee itself — for granted, until now. Slurping as the Stumptown expert had pedantically instructed, Solomon was not disappointed.

“What? This is like day and night. Yeah…this is fire-ass coffee! Solomon remembers thinking.

His palate still full, the epiphany followed: “An Ethiopian selling Ethiopian coffee in a white-dominated coffee scene in the city of Seattle.

Cafe Avole (pronounced “A-bol”), on Rainier Ave in the Brighton neighborhood began as a grocery store with an espresso stand in 2012, and became the beloved South Seattle meeting place it is now in 2015. It’s a space that offers pleasant contradictions; though a cafe where people come to work, conversations are not uncommon at Avole. And while the coffee and cuisine are focal, the ambiance is what people come away with; it’s what makes Cafe Avole — owned by Solomon Dubie, Gavin Amos and Getachew Enbiale — distinctive.

“During the weekday it’s definitely like your creatives, your thinkers, your builders — people that want to work with each other. It becomes not that place where you go and it’s like you’re isolated in your own worlds. Everybody is there to work, everybody’s doing shit, but you might start a conversation with somebody — or get dragged into a conversation over here because you overheard somebody. And then I look out and start seeing people gravitate to each other and start building networks with each other. That’s dope! I’ve gone to other shops where it’s like: we’re just gonna kind of find our little corner …” says Solomon.

COVID-19 closed Cafe Avole’s doors from March to June, but Solomon has weathered this period with grace. “I was 100% comfortable with closing. I was 100% comfortable with not earning any income. I had a little bit of capital. I can go make capital. You know, I’m skilled. I can go do some trades if I need to. That is not beneath me, to work if I need to … but I did personal stuff for myself that I haven’t done in years.” After Solomon got his affairs in order, he went right back to work on Avole, starting a coffee subscription service, delivering this shop’s fresh-squeezed juice weekly to Mercy Housing and continuing to develop the branding for his Georgetown roasterie.

Meanwhile, Gavin has been continuing to run a pop-up program called Avole Community Kitchen in conjunction with the City of Seattle. It aims to combat food insecurity and improve community access, while forming partnerships with local organizations such as Nurturing Roots — which has run various food donations on site.

Though Cafe Avole has blossomed into a paragon of inclusivity, its owners remain faithful to Solomon’s revelation about his motherland. “The beans are always going to be Ethiopian coffee. We only roast Ethiopian coffee. We’re only serving Ethiopian coffee. We’re focused on a couple of single origin coffees, Guji and Yirgacheffe, with the hopes of continuing to introduce more.”

Cafe Red

Jesiah Wurtz and Haley Williams of Cafe Red. (Photo: Zion Thomas)

In 2015, Jesiah Wurtz and Haley Williams began a bicycle-powered coffee cart they called Cafe Red. They popped up in different spots in the South End: mobile, but seeking purchase. Back in those days, you might have found their coffee trike at Lower Case Brewing in South Park or near the Columbia City Link stop, at Jefferson Park in Beacon Hill or on the corner of MLK and Othello. Jesiah says they were, “Looking for the desert. Where is it hard to find good coffee, and where can we bring it?”

While different opportunities for a storefront arose, their criteria shifted as they began to gravitate towards Othello, because, as Jesiah remembers, “This is the one that felt right. It just felt like this was a place we wanted to be.”

In a 2017 Emerald article by Marcus Harrison Green, Jesiah said, “If I fill up this place with yuppies, then I’ve failed.” By that measure, Cafe Red has succeeded, and Haley credits the diverse community for keeping them afloat: “Cafe Red is a space for people to gather, and because the people in this neighborhood are so unique and beautiful, they just reflect back. It’s not really about us at all, it’s just the space that we are able to provide.”

Jesiah and Haley decided to close Cafe Red from March to June due to concerns about many people in the community who they know to be in a high-risk category for COVID-19. After they were able to get hold of a couple small business loans and get all their staff on standby unemployment, the months off offered a respite from what were often 100-hour work weeks. It was a chance to reset, to tweak the way their cafe operates. While closed to customers, Cafe Red housed the vital plant-based food share program run by Chef Ariella Bangs, which continues to provide healthy food boxes to community members.

Before closing, Cafe Red had been carving out a niche for itself in the local music scene — providing a platform and a proving ground for local musicians and rappers. During any given week, Cafe Red was home to two to five live events, and their cachet as a community hub was building — as evidenced by the Cafe Red jackets and hats seen around the South End. They were even growing into a venue destination for touring acts. Carnage the Executioner brought his unique live act from Minnesota where he beatboxes live with a loop pedal and then raps over it. New Fame, a hip hop duo based in Vietnam, also came through Cafe Red for a memorable night. Both of these shows had local acts open for them, and Jesiah and Haley relish being able to observe the mixing of local and far-flung talent.

Yet even as Cafe Red temporarily closed, Haley remarks that the sense of community never stopped, and it’s helped her weather these long months. “It feels like people are gathering here, even after hours, because it’s the safety and the community that they can still have even though they’re working from home. Everything is so uncertain, it’s been really awesome to be able to have that kind of anchor.”

Of all the support they’ve gotten during the closure, Jesiah adds, “God-damned miracle … Honestly I just feel really blessed that we’re still here. I feel really humbled and grateful that so many people have our backs right now.”

The Station Coffee Shop

Jose Luis Rodriguez and Leona Moore-Rodriguez, owners of The Staton in Beacon Hill. (Photo: Zion Thomas)

Before Beacon Hill’s activist coffee shop, The Station, became the iconic, award-winning antithesis-of-Starbucks that it is, there was Java Love.

Java Love predates the decades-long marriage of Station co-owners Jose Luis Rodriguez and Leona Moore-Rodriguez. With his older brother, Oscar Castro, Jose Luis opened up The Station’s predecessor back in 1994, but eventually Oscar’s interests shifted toward cooking the cuisine of Baja, Mexico, where the brothers emigrated from, and adding a bar. So while Oscar developed another Beacon Hill mainstay, Baja Bistro, and left the coffee business, Jose Luis bought his brother’s share of Java Love and moved it across the street from the just-opened Beacon Hill light rail station — from which The Station later took its name. Leona, working a corporate job at the time to make sure the couple had steady income for their two sons, watched it blossom for a few years, took the plunge — and the rest is history.

“Once we got our own shop going,” Leona says, “we made our own rules, basically. You’re free here. Our employees can defend themselves if they’re being harassed by a customer. You know how some people are just really snooty about shit? I mean, if you’re just being a dick, you don’t have to be here.” Jose Luis adds, “We have become this kind of unicorn in Seattle, because we’re a Black and Brown-owned business who allows their employees to be free — and every single one of our employees are Black and Brown.” An example they provide is the volume of the music at The Station, which is often audible down the block. Their employees know that if they’re asked, even politely, to turn down Outkast or Megan Thee Stallion by a customer, they can refuse, because that standard has been set for their comfort. The philosophy behind the quality of service at The Station seems to hinge on their employees’ humanity being honored. Counterintuitive, perhaps, but both owners see this as central to what The Station is, and The Station continues to thrive.

Leona Moore-Rodriguez speaks with her husband Jose Luis Rodriguez at tThe Staton in Beacon Hill. (Photo: Zion Thomas)

In March, when it became apparent COVID-19 was serious, Jose Luis reached out to King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay and other local politicians for information, and found out that during phase one, essential businesses could remain open. Jose Luis explains The Station’s rationale for staying open:

“We knew that during those times that community was going to need us somehow. In a very weird way, I was like, ‘Yo, if we close, what’s going to happen to a lot of these people?’ It was just a crazy revelation — I feel that this is the time that we shine. This is the time that we need to step up, to be at our best.

Within a few weeks, Ray Morales, the vice principal of Cleveland High School, reached out to find a space for their food drive, and soon after the Beacon Ave side of The Station was stocked with food. Members of the community could come and go with what they wished; they could contribute, or they could take as much or as little as they wanted, with neither pretense or stigma. Many community members took note, and Leona speaks of masked people walking in, glancing over at the free pantry, cryptically buying nothing and tipping $20 — likely having heard of their efforts on social media or from one of the articles written about The Station’s food pantry.

Also, in part because of The Station’s empowerment of their BIPOC employees, and in part because of their food pantry, Leona and Jose Luis were recently a 2020 Roberto Maestas Legacy Award honoree.

Ari Robin McKenna lives and writes in Dunlap (just north of Rainier Beach). You can follow him here or here.

Zion Thomas is a photographer, passionate about social justice, and a fierce community activist. He currently works at Rainier Beach Action Coalition where he is focused on helping the community in any way he can. You can follow him here.

Featured image: Cafe Avole by Susan Fried.