Opening a new business is hard enough under normal circumstances. Opening a vegan cooperative cafe during a pandemic is an entirely different difficulty, the owners of Anyone’s Cafe say.
The eatery is set to make its grand opening this weekend, replacing Misfit Doughnuts and Treats at 133 Gregory St. in the South Wedge. Like its predecessor, the cafe is focused on vegan food and drink.
“It’s been a really crazy whirlwind of having things happen so fast,” says Saig Feliz, a worker-owner of Anyone’s Cafe and recent Rochester transplant. “Seven of my 10 months here have been spent opening up a new business.”
“And nothing has stopped,” agrees Noah Elias, a worker-owner of Anyone’s Cafe and former employee of Misfit Doughnuts. “Since October, we’ve been busting our butts for seven straight months. We have had meetings twice a week, every week; we filled out our loan memo, got the approval, then we acquired all of the equipment, started renovations, started recipe testing, and here we are.”
Anyone’s Cafe is a food cooperative. The full-time workers are also owners in the company, an aspect employees say will give them greater protections and control over store policies and benefits. In the future, all employees will work toward ownership.
“All of us have a working-class background or have had working-class jobs. So we understand the need for those kinds of benefits. Union benefits, health care, workers’ comp—all the protections we are not usually afforded,” says Elias, who has a laundry list of previous jobs at bakeries and restaurants, including a waitressing company with their mother.
Feliz, who was abruptly laid off from a hair stylist job at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, wants control over their work. Feliz also works at the gender affirming salon Talking Heads.
“I never want to have to be scared that I’ll lose a job that quickly again,” Feliz says.
The establishment of Anyone’s Cafe was supported by Seed Commons, a loan-funding network; Cooperation Buffalo, a team of cooperative business developers and educators; and Genesee Co-op Federal Credit Union, a community development financial institution.
“We’re excited to be able to help another cooperative in our area,” says Dan Apfel, chief operating officer of Genesee Co-op. “Worker-owned businesses like Anyone’s are a great model for creating sustainable wealth in the community.”
Anyone’s Cafe joins the Red Fern as fully vegan eateries in the city. The decision to focus on vegan fare was made not only to accommodate patrons with allergies but also with the environment in mind. The cafe furnishings and much of the kitchen equipment was acquired through the secondhand recycling store Greenovation, where Elias has volunteered in the past.
“We’re so excited to help them open and support those places who are trying to make our community a better place,” says Kimberly de Prez, Executive Director of Greenovation.
Feliz, who is one of the two vegetarian and vegan worker-owners, says they were able to decrease their carbon footprint by not serving meat or dairy products.
Even so, the food is loved by its other omnivore worker-owners including Elias, who has a penchant for the cafe’s sunbutter cookies, which are made with sunflower butter. Another of the cafe’s specialties, “the Bubba,” is made with battered and fried blue oyster mushrooms along with house aioli, pickles, cheese, lettuce, and tomato. The employees like to call it their “vegan chicken sandwich.”
The menu is also a celebration of the trans and gender non-binary identities of the owners. Anyone’s Cafe’s signature drink, “the Sappho,” is made with Equal Exchange espresso, French vanilla and lavender syrup, and Elmhurst oat milk, and is named after the Greek poet from the island of Lesbos. It is topped with dried violets, which has served as a symbol for LGBT identity throughout history.
“In gay history, men would wear violets in their coat pockets to signal or flag to other gay men, ‘Hey, I’m one of you,’” says Feliz, who created the Sappho recipe and shares a slogan with the character of Flower from the movie “Bambi.” “I think everyone should be more kind and eat more flowers.”
Anyone’s Cafe wants to serve the community on a number of issues. Already, it has donated day-old baked goods to a food pantry on Alexander Street and it hopes to partner with organizations like Food Not Bombs to provide a kitchen for food outreach.
“I live normally paycheck to paycheck, but I give my cash when I can. There’s a rotation of unhoused people who are out by the highway (near my home),” Elias says, remembering prior experiences at food serves. “I learned more from sitting and talking with people who have experienced this trauma than I ever could with a 600-page book.”
In addition to tackling food insecurity, Anyone’s Cafe stocks narcan and fentanyl test strips as well as narcotics pamphlets about safe usage and emergency numbers inside the building. It hopes to install a needle dropoff box inside the bathroom to further serve their mission of harm reduction.
Feliz takes the issue of harm reduction personally as they are seven years sober and hopes that their efforts will lead to less stigma and lethal danger.
“Harm reduction has saved my life. I’ve had narcan used on me and it is very important for me for the community to have access,” Feliz says. “I want to be able to talk openly and honestly about usage and be able to meet people where they are at. So we don’t have more people dying.”
Along with others at Anyone’s Cafe, Elias believes the concept of transformative justice extends to many issues including drug use, sexual assault, and incarceration.
“If anyone were to know what you have done at the lowest point of your life, in your most desperate hour, the meanest thing you’ve ever done or the harmful thing you’ve ever done, you don’t want to be known for that from that moment on,” Elias says. You don’t want to be known as a person for a moment of time that is no longer present. It’s addressing the root cause from a survivor-based community healing process.”
In pursuing this goal, Anyone’s Cafe hopes it will be able to partner with organizations such as Teen Empowerment to provide a space for teach-ins or transformation circles. These circles are key to the idea of restorative justice and involve the wronged party, a mediator, sometimes the perpetrator, and members of the community to discuss solutions.
“The decision to steal is not easy to make. People do it because there’s a point of certainty, ‘I will die or I will starve if I don’t get money or food,’” says Elias. “What can we do to help instead of, at best, disappearing a person into the prison system and never getting closure?”
For the worker-owners of Anyone’s Cafe, these social justice efforts go beyond running a business. They are part of their lived experiences, some of which were tragic. For Feliz, it was the death of their sister. For Elias, it was the death of their best friend.
“He liked physics. We used to joke around that he was going to invent a time machine and stop all of the most heinous atrocities as a way to make the world a better place,” Elias says. “We don’t know what happens after you die, but the truth is what happens after you die is the world moves on without this person. So I try to uphold his memory, his energy, his attitude and his inspiration as much as I can.”
“I really didn’t want to try to make it so sentimental,” Feliz laughs tearfully. “My late sister left this world believing that a better world was possible and I want in any way I can to make that happen because she can’t be here for it. I’m living life for two people.”
“And I want her to be proud!” they add sharing a laugh with Elias.
Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.