DENVER – Whittier Cafe in Denver's Five Points neighborhood is known for its espresso that is made exclusively with beans imported from Africa. It's is also known as “the activist's coffee shop.”
“I consider this place to be heavily community driven,” said barista Brent Bell. “To let your community know, 'Hey, this isn't about a business. This is an us thing. Right? We are the village. This is just the gathering place for the village.' It's not always just about the product, right? Like Denver is full of coffee shops. But the one thing that Denver isn't full of is comfort, camaraderie, all kinds of things that make this place this place."
The café is typically filled with regulars looking for a place to study or conduct business while enjoying a good cup of Joe.
“The baristas here are just fantastic. They're so friendly. I love what they stand for. And in my opinion, it's the best coffee in town,” said Brandy White, who was using the café as a study space.
“We are very big on the cultural aspect of what we bring to Denver. This is a learning space. You go in expecting a latte and you walk out with a lesson,” said Bell.
Owner Millete Birhanemaskel is from Tigrayan, the northern region in Ethiopia. She said she started Whittier Cafe out of frustration.
“I started the cafe out of frustration because people didn't understand like where coffee comes from and what a gift Africa has given the world. So I want people to know that every day you start your day with a little bit of Africa in your cup of coffee," said Birhanemaskel.
The café, which has been around for 10 years, did not become an activist spot overnight.
"It came about pretty organically becoming the activist café. There was a young person, Jessie Hernandez, who was killed not too far from here. And there was a group that wanted to mourn their death, and they didn't have a place to meet. So it was a big frustration. I reached out and said, 'Hey, you can you can meet here. Come to the cafe and coffee is on us all day.' So that was like sort of the beginnings of our, like, activist story," said Birhanemaskel. "If you think of, like, what an activist is, it's someone who's fighting to bring, you know, social change and uplift people whose voices are unheard."
Birhanemaskel said being a safe space for activism doesn't come without its challenges.
“The biggest thing that people don't know is maybe sometimes how difficult it is to be in this space. Just given the history of the community and being a redline community and being a Black business that has survived. Just that pressure of like, 'OK, so if I were to close my business, then what what happens?' Because there's been such a loss. So sometimes that pressure, I think, actually makes me emotional," she said. "But that's hard that, you know, sometimes I feel like I can't leave. I can't do anything different. That came out of nowhere."
But it's the customers that keep Birhanemaskel and Whittier Cafe going.
“Everything happened so organically that I didn't realize it in the moment. But suddenly, we became this place that people really love and really adore. One of my favorite, I guess quotes from a customer was, ‘The coffee is great, but I really come for the love.' Like that's really nice,” said Birhanemaskel.
Whittier Cafe, located at 1710 East 25th Avenue, is open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday.