“We’re trying to save a legacy,” says Fathima Dickerson, one of the Welton Street Cafe’s five co-owners. For more than two decades, the restaurant at 2736 Welton Street has been a hub for the Black community in the Five Points neighborhood — and the source of great fried chicken. In fact, it just won the Best Southern/Soul Restaurant award in the Best of Denver 2021.
But now it’s in danger of closing because of a broken HVAC system, which controls the building's heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems. Without air conditioning, the kitchen can reach temperatures above 100 degrees, causing appliances to fail and creating unworkable conditions. The cost to repair the system and deal with additional maintenance issues is estimated at $50,000, and the restaurant just doesn't have money to cover the cost.
But now the community is rallying to save the cafe. “This is more than just food, and we all know that,” Dickerson says.
Dickerson’s parents, Flynn and Mona Dickerson, opened the Welton Street Cafe in 1999. The 33-year-old grew up working there, and saw firsthand the many challenges her family has already had to deal with, including the recession of 2008, this past year’s pandemic and the ongoing effects of gentrification.
“This is the neighborhood where we’ve built an institution,” Dickerson says. “If we don’t save this place, we don’t save this neighborhood. What the Welton Street Cafe really embodies for the Black community is freedom. This is freedom here. You don’t have to...code-switch and do all these things to conform or abide or fit in. And that's important."
Welton Street Cafe is a family place, she adds. It's not just a family-run business, but the many regulars have become family over the years.
Shawn McWilliams has been going to the cafe since 2007. He’s originally from Chicago, and when he first walked in the door, he says, it felt like family. In the years since, he's become good friends with the Dickersons, and he gets a meal there at least a few times a week.
“It’s one of the first places that I came to eat, and I never stopped coming,” McWilliams explains. “The whole concept of it possibly not being here is like actually losing a piece of home.” Without the cafe, the community just wouldn’t feel the same, he adds.
According to Dickerson, Welton Street Cafe is a place where the Black community not only gathers, but strengthens its network of support. “We meet everybody from every walk of life,” she says, noting that she once connected a woman who couldn’t work because she couldn’t find child care with a customer who runs a daycare. “I feel like the missing link,” she adds.
But as the days have been getting warmer, the heat inside the restaurant has become unbearable, she says. On May 1, when temperatures outside were in the 80s, the kitchen was 104 degrees. The appliances started to fail, including refrigerators and coolers; the deep fryer gave up. Staffers didn't want to work in such conditions, and Dickerson suffered, too. She has fibromyalgia, and her body doesn't do well in heat.
“I’m trying to take my emotions out of it, because I’m not just trying to save our business," she says. "I’m trying to save my community. I have a family. We employ people who have families.”
The Dickerson family — five members are now co-owners of the restaurant — shared their plight with KMGH, in hopes of raising awareness and funds to repair the HVAC system. The community immediately rallied. “It’s interesting to watch and to see the people riot online,” Fathima Dickerson says. “That just speaks volumes.”
The Welton Street Cafe fundraiser is being run through Denver7 Gives, a fund of the Scripps Howard Foundation. To make a contribution, go to the Save the Welton Street Cafe link.
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