Whittier Cafe | Denver’s Only African Espresso Bar
Whittier Cafe is Denver’s Only African Espresso Bar
Meet the Owner; Millete Birhanemaskel
Hi Millete! Can you tell us your story leading up to owning Whittier Cafe?
My name is Millete Birhanemaskel. I am from Tigray, in East Africa, and I spent a long time in journalism before opening a coffee shop. I was tired of the tired stories about the problems in Africa. So much beauty also comes from the continent, including coffee. The world wakes up with a bit of Africa everyday in their cup of coffee and doesn’t even recognize it. I wanted to change that narrative.
Your nickname is “The Activists Coffee Shop” Can you tell us about your dedication to Social Justice?
The nickname “Activists Coffee Shop” was originally meant to be a slight- little did folks know! I come from a long line of political and social justice activists. It was when Jesse Hernandez was killed because of neighbors who felt they looked “suspect” that we really dug deep into those activist roots. We are the place people come to decompress, to recharge, to feel connected and to fight for good. We are proud of being a place to power our activist community.
Why did you choose the Whittier Neighborhood for your business?
The Whittier neighborhood chose us. There was an existing coffee shop that wasn’t faring well and somehow the dots were connected. The Whittier neighborhood is a formerly RedLined community so it was only divine intervention that could bring a Black woman to this sacred space to revitalize a community and be a safe space during a tumultuous time of gentrification, Black Lives Matter, women’s marches and so many social justice movements.
What are some of your favorite Drinks and Food Items you are known for?
Our weekly coffee ceremony is what most know us for – it includes incense, popcorn, freshly roasted coffee brewed in clay pots. Another favorite is the Almond Breakfast Smoothie (vegan) – The way pregnant women crave this drink is everything!
As Denver’s only African Espresso Bar- which African Nations do you get your Coffee From?
We are currently still boycotting Ethiopia because of the genocide in Tigray. But our signature is the Kenyan bean and our house blend is a blend of many African nations.
What type of community events, like your Winter Coat Drive, have been hosted at Whittier Cafe?
The Winter Coat drive was put on entirely by the staff. There are all different types of activists with righteous causes who brainstorm and activate at the cafe. One of those is ‘Homeless Out Loud’. That fight is near and dear to our social justice organizing.
The idea that a city as resourceful, as brilliant, as talented as Denver, can’t figure out how to treat those who are unhoused is insulting. And the cruelty of governments to sweep humans and their only belongings makes no sense. So the staff wanted to be sure to share a little bit of love with folks who are down on their luck.
What challenges have you experienced on your journey? How did the pandemic affect your business?
The pandemic was awful because it took away the most sacred aspect of our coffee shop – the community gatherings. We still don’t have our footing but are starting to create a post-COVID space that can still center community and gatherings. The coffee ceremony, with modifications, is back on and that helps reconnect the space.
How would you describe the Personality or “Vibe” of Denver?
The vibe of the city depends on who you ask. To me, the city is losing its rhythm, even a painful place (gentrification is violent). There is a sense of loss with diverse, eclectic small businesses, for example, and restaurants and cafes. There are businesses that are hanging on or activists who feel like they can revive “Harlem of the West” in 5 Points. Those are good thoughts. The political will and social will have to meet, but it is possible.
Are you from Colorado? Which neighborhood did you choose to call home and why?
I have lived in Colorado since I was 3 months old and really it is the only home I know. I was a refugee and couldn’t even get a passport from the country I was born nor the one of my parents homeland. I am grateful to a place that, while imperfect, allowed me to make a home.