How Three DC 20-Somethings Are Changing Lives With The Village Café
Yes, the Village Café serves coffee. But its real purpose is serving the community.
Raheem Johnson says he owes his new life to three DC social entrepreneurs: 20-somethings more than a decade younger than he is.
Kevon King, Mahammad Mangum and Ryan Williams, all 25, are the owners of The Village Cafe in Northeast DC’s Union Market District. The three friends, who attended Wilson High School in Northwest, bonded as teenagers over how different their high school was from the communities in which they grew up. King and Williams, friends since elementary school, are from east of the river — Wards 7 and 8. Mangum is from Petworth.
“Coming from Southeast and being able to attend the most diverse public school in the city and traveling uptown every day and being exposed to spaces that are different from my usual space,” King says, inspired the three to want to find a way to help the communities in which they were raised.
The Village Cafe, which opened in 2019, exclusively hires employees from DC Career Connect (for 17 to 24 year olds) and Project Empowerment (for 24 to 54 year olds); both non-profits offer employment placement for those with felony convictions or who are experiencing homelessness. “Their missions aligned with our mission,” says King. “To make an impact with people just by surrounding them with the right tools and the right environment.”
“I wanted to change my life for the better. I’ve been through some things,” says Johnson, 36, who grew up in Southeast DC. When he signed up with Project Empowerment and expressed interest in becoming a chef, the program placed him with The Village Cafe. “It was my rebirth,” says Johnson. “It was out of this world, like it was something that’s never been seen before. And one of the reasons were the three young men, Black men; they came up with this idea [that] was bigger than just a coffee shop. It was empowering. It was strength. It was positivity. It was growth. It was inspiration to me,” says Johnson, who worked at an historic inn in Virginia after leaving his four-month internship at The Village Cafe and is now a chef at Elements on U Street. He’s also started a private catering business, Just Potatoes DC. Johnson says his three mentors at The Village Cafe “reminded me to chase the dreams and never give up.”
The cafe’s mission goes beyond the interns they hire. It was founded on “three pillars,” says Williams: to impact entrepreneurs, creatives, and food makers. The cafe sources its products from neighborhoods in Southeast and Northeast DC, boosting businesses that just don’t get the kind of foot traffic that DC’s more touristy areas draw. And, because they wanted to find a way to “activate [our space] so that it makes the most, most possible impact it can,” King says, they launched Lab 1270 and Neighbors, also called Weekend Pop-up, to really focus in on “people, space, and impact.”
Local artists, musicians, filmmakers and others can share their work at Lab 1270, while educators and experts host workshops, classes and panels. The Lab is “an incubation space” or “springboard” for creatives to figure out their paths, says King. “And that’s what I love about the space the most. It’s really changing lives, just by giving that kind of beginner [a] space,” says King. It’s also an incubator for King, Magnum and Williams — an opportunity “to flex our first time muscles of entrepreneurship and what it is we’re passionate about.” Through the Lab, they’ve hosted additional community events, like book drives and, pre-Covid, a prom drive for high school seniors who may not have the means to buy or rent a gown or tuxedo.
Neighbors, another one of the cafe’s community-sided programs, is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to showcase their new businesses in pop-up style. On any given weekend, a table outside the cafe might be set up with an entrepreneur selling their products; both Black Flower Market and Rosewater DC had successful runs in front of the market this fall. Anyone who has a business can apply to use The Village Cafe space, which they share with Edens, the commercial realtor behind the development of Union Market and the Union Market District. The cafe also adjoins Politics & Prose, one of DC’s iconic bookstores.
The community the Village’s team has created doesn’t end there. During the pandemic, the cafe, which suffered its own losses during Covid-related lockdowns, began a partnership with D.C. Fridge Collective, a non-profit focused on feeding vulnerable DC residents. As a host for the collective, the cafe stocks a fridge on their premises with healthy food for those who need it. According to a 2020 report by the Food Policy Council, the pandemic has left more DC’s residents, especially those from traditionally Black and Brown neighborhoods, suffering from food insecurities — 28.6 percent of children and 16.7 percent of adults.
With each new program they launch, and each new creative they support, the team’s business relationships expand exponentially. “Relationship building is one of the most underrated parts of entrepreneurship and starting your own business,” says King. In fact, it was Williams’s original relationship with Richie Brandenburg, former culinary operations director for José Andrés’s ThinkFoodGroup, that changed the course of Williams’s life. He met and bonded with Brandenburg while part of a program called Brain Food, a non-profit that focused on empowering teens through kitchen skills, and eventually went on to graduate from the Culinary Institute of America, the Harvard of cooking schools and Brandenburg’s alma mater. Brandenburg was the first person the Village team turned to when they wrote their original business plan.
While Williams’s dream had always been to have his own restaurant, he’s overwhelmed by the positive impact this project has had on its community. “It’s far beyond anything that I could have seen,” he says. “It makes my day being able to talk to people, see how their day is going … and to feed them the food they like,” he says, with a smile. The plan is to take their village-based concept and launch it in other cities, like Chicago and LA; first, they want to open another Village and this one, east of the river. Each iteration would have the same mission: to create the most impact with the space they have.
For the moment, there’s just the one village — but Williams and his partners have faith in the future they’re building from scratch. “I still wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and I’m like, Damn,” says Williams. “I can’t believe what we created.”
All photos by Candace Dane Chambers/IG: @candace.dane
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