by Jack Russillo
When Isolynn “Ice” Dean, the owner of the Central District’s Cortona Cafe, made the decision to close her coffee shop, she wanted the space to continue to be a hub for the community even after she locks the doors for the final time on November 29.
Since November 2009, the cafe has offered more than just Herkimer Coffee and homemade waffles. When Dean took over the cafe from her brother-in-law in 2013, she started filling the space with different gatherings rooted in the community, from open-mic nights to meetings of Africatown and Seattle Neighborhood Greenways. On the corner of 25th Avenue East and East Union Street, the space has been a part of the Central District’s heartbeat, and Dean didn’t want to disrupt that when she moves to Georgia in the spring to pursue her agricultural dream of farming mushrooms.
The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic affected Cortona, but Dean believes that the cafe could have made it through the winter. Doors were shut in March and haven’t opened to customers since. Among other adjustments, Dean began serving customers through a streetside window and business was doing well enough to remain open.
“My customers are phenomenal,” said Dean. “My customers, my neighbors, my friends, my family, whatever you want to call them, they are phenomenal. They just showed up and they really pushed us through those first couple of months.”
Even with steady numbers, Dean eventually felt the time was right to move on from Cortona and Seattle. In wanting to preserve the character of the space that Cortona had represented for years, Dean specifically chose the replacement for the coffee shop to be Hanan Hassan Diriye and Ambrosia Austin, the founders of Melo Juice and the future operators of Melo Cafe, the next occupant of the coffee shop.
“I didn’t want to sell it off to whomever,” said Dean. “The Central District is already gentrified. I was very adamant that I wanted to keep it woman-owned also. I just wanted to leave it in a good space … Hanan is the thinker and the creator and Ambrosia is the one that really pushes things along. She provides the space and Hanan fills the space and it’s really a beautiful combo.”
In March, Hassan Diriye started making juices to boost her immune system. Then she started taking orders and Austin helped Dean become one of the earliest customers, consistently buying the first Melo Juice combination, a ginger-flavored beverage with locally-sourced ingredients like echinacea and honey.
The trajectories of the two cafes paired well. The owners believed in each other’s missions, behind the coffee bar but also around the community.
“I’ve known [Dean] for years, in various circles,” said Hassan Diriye. “She’s really well connected and I guess I could say I’m well connected in the community from community-building work … [Dean] is one of those people that I was really lucky to get to know because she’s so great at making people feel warm and at home. And she definitely did that with her space and how she really drives to put community first.”
“Both of them are deeply involved in the community,” said Dean. “What [Hassan Diriye] does for the community and just her energy in general draws people in … You feel safe around her, so automatically she is creating a safe space. And I think that is my main goal. I just want Cortona to be a safe [space], whatever safety means for you.”
From now until the time Cortona closes its doors for good on the final Sunday of November, Austin and Hassan Diriye will be at Cortona on Wednesdays and Sundays to familiarize themselves with the space and the shop’s regular customers. After Cortona’s last day, Dean will help oversee renovations for a few weeks before Melo Cafe opens in early 2021.
“We’re just so grateful — beyond grateful, honestly — to have the support and the thought of Isolynn to move forward with the space,” said Austin. “If you read her Instagram post, she’s not selling the business or the space off to the highest bidder. This is a vision for her to build up women, Women of Color, and give it a community feel. It really does tie into the vision of what she sees when she’s passing this torch. I honestly couldn’t be more grateful.”
Once open, Melo Cafe will offer pre-bottled juices, Herkimer coffee, the same homemade waffles currently served at Cortona, and other pastries. New Melo Juice flavors will be released around the time of the cafe’s opening and any updates will be posted on the Melo Juice Instagram page. Long-term goals for the juice company include adding a covered and heated seating area, sourcing more ingredients from Black-woman-owned farms, providing an outlet for local artists to showcase their work, and hosting community events once health guidelines permit them to do so.
“People don’t like change nine times out of ten and we just want to continue the feeling of excitement,” Austin said. “Even though Ice is moving on and pursuing her dream, we want the community to know we’re here. We’re here to honor her legacy, we’re here to give you something that’s going to make you feel good as far as Melo Juice goes, and we’re also going to maintain the familiarity of what Ice provided for the community.”
Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image by Jack Russillo.
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