by Kayla Blau
The doors of Central Cafe officially opened on Jan. 18, 2020, just a few months before Seattle entered COVID-19 lockdown. Many small businesses didn’t make it, but Bridgette Johnson knows how to pivot.
Johnson grew up in the Central District and is a Garfield High School alumna. After 10 plus years of preparing food in grocery stores, she wanted more creative control over the food she was preparing and decided to open a cafe.
“I wanted to create a space like we had when I was a kid. We would go to the corner store all the time, and the owner knew us so we wouldn’t act up. We need to know our neighbors again, to check in on people, especially now with the pandemic and so much isolation and depression. We need those community spaces where everyone is welcome,” she said.
It took two years to locate an affordable space, but she eventually found a home for her dream right in her neighborhood, the Central District, where the Barbeque Pit previously stood off Cherry Street.
“It wasn’t easy getting any type of small business loan though, especially as a Black woman,” Johnson said. “Most banks want you to have at least 2–5 years of a successful business before they will approve you for a loan. But we made it happen!”
Using her extensive experience in food preparation, Johnson created a unique, seasonal menu filled with vegetarian and vegan options. The cafe’s extensive fresh juices and smoothies are affordable and delicious, such as the “Cool Breeze” juice with pineapple, apple, cucumber, turmeric, mint, and ginger.
“I love creating tasty, healthy food, because no one likes healthy food that tastes bad! I went on a two-week plant-based retreat in Hawaii, where I learned how to incorporate a plant-based diet into some of my favorite foods. We love experimenting with fun, new twists on classics. We had a pop-up with vegan jambalaya, and it sold out so quick! No one believed it was vegan, it tasted that good.”
The cafe also uses only compostable and recyclable materials, and partners with local vendors for almost all their ingredients. For example, Johnson partners with Golden Wheat Bakery, another family-owned Central District staple, for pastries to “keep it in the neighborhood,” and donates all unused food to a Tiny Village Encampment.
Instead of focusing on the negative impacts of COVID-19 on her new business, Johnson saw opportunity and remained flexible. As the weather has warmed up, her team has prepared a beautiful, covered, private outdoor patio, complete with a projector for movie screenings. The space can be rented out for private events, catered by Central Cafe. They also obtained their liquor license and offer delectable alcoholic as well as non-alcoholic drink options.
“Our back patio is the perfect place to pre-funk for a night out or celebration. My personal favorite is the ‘Red Dragon,’ which has dragon fruit, watermelon, lemon, and pineapple. It can be made into a cocktail too! We also have themed drinks on a rotating basis. For the first day of the Kentucky Derby, we had our own spin on a mint julep which had blueberries, rhubarb, and mint. We like to remind folks there is more going on in the world than the pandemic, to provide a positive space for connection.”
In line with her dream for a community hub, Johnson partners with local artists and vendors to provide rotating goods, from dog toys to artisanal candy to reusable straws.
“I love flowers, so I connected with a local business called Sweet Blissful Bloom. They’re usually at Pike Place Market, but during the pandemic that wasn’t possible, so they brought fresh flowers to sell here on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and we’re going to keep that going.”
There are always new unique goods by the register available for purchase, including COVID-19 masks made by Johnson’s daughter, handmade earrings from her niece, and naturopathic remedies.
“One of my employees has his own apothecary, Archaic Apothecary, right here in the Central District with natural healing tinctures. He also makes all our simple syrups made from scratch in house.”
Johnson hopes to provide mentorship programs to students at Nova High School and Garfield High School in the future to give students tangible experience in the food industry and see themselves represented in a successful business owner. Johnson credits her success to the support of her regulars and community.
“When we first opened, I had four regulars who were all pregnant. Now, all their babies are born so I introduced them to each other, and now they’re all friends and come in together all the time. Everyone needs people to check in on them, and I love building those connections.”
As for the future of Central Cafe, Bridgette has lots of exciting pop-ups and plans in store. There will be live music on the outdoor patio on Friday evenings throughout the summer, starting with a pre-Juneteenth celebration on June 18 from 4:00–7:45pm. The cafe will continue catering, renting out the private patio for events, and continue serving delicious, affordable, healthy eats for their beloved community. For more information, check out their website, or reach out to Bridgette directly at email@example.com.
Kayla Blau is a Seattle-based writer and youth advocate. She holds a master’s in social work, and more of her work can be found here.
📸 Featured Image: Central Cafe and Juice Bar owner Bridgette Johnson poses with fresh produce in front of a welcoming mural in her cafe. Photo courtesy of Bridgette Johnson.
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