Paying it Forward with Café 180

Braxton Adams, kitchen manager at Cafe 180, stands behind the register of the Englewood restaurant. The restaurant asks guests to pay what they can. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

Braxton Adams, kitchen manager at Cafe 180, stands behind the register of the Englewood restaurant. The restaurant asks guests to pay what they can. (Credit: Sarah Ford)

Interview by Robert Davis

Restaurants always think of themselves as an integral part of a community, but few take this thinking to heart in the same way as Café 180. Café 180 keeps one single goal in mind: to pay it forward. This goal oftentimes materializes when community members who struggle to afford a meal offer their hard work in return for a hot dish. 

Paying it forward is something our vendors can relate to as well. They stand out on the streets in rain, sunshine, or snow hoping to deliver you news about the problems homeless persons face in Denver. In return, they hope their efforts will inspire meaningful change in the city. 

What began as a conversation in 2010 about creating transitional housing in Denver turned into restaurant where anyone can eat, regardless of their ability to pay. Now, Café 180 regularly helps 15 people per day afford a hot meal through service. 

We spoke with Sarah Lesyinski, Executive Director of One Good Turn, to find out more about the business and in turn she gave our vendors some invaluable advice about how to run their own businesses.  

Denver VOICE: What’s the story behind One Good Turn and Cafe 180? How did each business get started?

Sarah Leyinski: The cafe started as a conversation between our founders over lunch. Julie Mihevc and Catherine Clements were meeting to talk about creating a transitional housing program in Englewood, but they loved the concept of serving everyone regardless of ability to pay. They started serving nutritious meals to anyone willing to volunteer for an hour in exchange for a meal. Since we opened in 2010, we’ve served more than 33,000 meals in this dignified exchange, and countless more to our paying customers who “pay it forward” for our friends in need. 

One Good Turn was created in 2014 as an umbrella to the cafe and the programs that we’ve launched to further support the Englewood community. Out of need, we developed JOBS 180, HOUSING 180, and COUNSELING 180. Like the cafe, we offer these programs in exchange for volunteer time. 

DV: What motivates you on a daily basis and when times get tough?

SL: There’s more to CAFE 180 than what you might see at first glance. We have truly created a space where people from all backgrounds and circumstances come together. One of our regulars once said that CAFE 180 was “the center of the universe.” At the time, we all laughed. But in this moment of reflection, I get it. Every single day, I watch people learn more about themselves — and more about life — just by sharing space with people outside of their normal circles.

DV: How has the Denver community supported your business? How were you initially received?

SL: Initially, there were many in our Englewood community who were pretty skeptical. Some went so far as to call the mayor to complain that we’d be attracting more people experiencing homelessness into our community. But the reality is people in need were already here. And once our neighbors started coming to the cafe, saw how we operated our dignified exchange, and tried our delicious food, they realized we weren’t just here for one population. We are in business for everyone. 

DV: How did you determine your best practices for running your business?

SL: We were one of the first nonprofit community cafes, so we were in close communication with the few other cafes who were doing similar work. We’re a restaurant first and foremost, so much of the guidance came from the industry. 

DV: What hurdles have you faced? How did you overcome them?

SL: Every year is a little different. Most recently it’s been keeping up with the changing demographics of Englewood. Our rent at the cafe was raised significantly two years ago and we had to think seriously about our ability to stay in the neighborhood. More people than ever are volunteering for their meals, and we’ve seen a large increase in the number of people who come in and pay the minimum we’ve set for meals. So we’ve been seeking additional sources of revenue, including renting out our space in the evenings for private events. 

DV: What goals do you have for the company at this point? Have they changed since you began?

SL: We’re in the business of feeding hungry people. But our mission has evolved over time. One Good Turn is about the forging of connection. There isn’t a single solution to any of the problems we face in our society. Part of our role is to give people from all circumstances a way to be involved. Last year, our cafe manager got involved with an Englewood-based movement called Change the Trend, which brings businesses, government, nonprofit, and community organizations together to address the growing issue of homelessness. We’re also launching a formal corporate outreach program to connect businesses with the many opportunities we have at the cafe and beyond for getting involved. And we’re always looking for like-minded people who are interested in creative solutions to tackling some of the biggest problems we face as a community. ■