Spring Café, just blocks from the Colorado Capitol, has for the past four years provided a kind of two-way civics lesson for the caffeine-starved state lawmakers who patronize it and the newly arrived refugees who work there and serve them.
Legislative deals are cut at the coffee shop’s tiny round tables. Behind the counter and whirring espresso machines, 22 refugees from countries including Iraq, Iran, Belarus and Cuba have learned English and gained valuable service-industry skills. Some stayed on to work there for years.
But the cafe will close on Dec. 13 because there are too few refugees applying to work there. There has been a steep drop in Denver-area resettlements under the Trump administration, and Spring Institute, the nonprofit behind Spring Café, says it can’t justify continuing to lose money on an initiative that doesn’t achieve its mission to help refugees.
“It’s just devastating,” Spring Institute CEO Paula Schriefer said. “We absolutely love the cafe. It’s been a passion project. Not only the people who have come to work there, but the broader community of legislators and their staff — it’s brought such vibrancy into this space.”
About 2,500 refugees resettled in Colorado in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, but that number dropped to 1,874 in 2017, to 882 in 2018, and to 838 in 2019, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Spring Café didn’t hire a single new refugee in 2019.
The Trump administration has since 2017 reduced the number of refugee admissions set under President Barack Obama. President Donald Trump approved a plan last month to reduce the number of refugees accepted by the U.S. to 18,000 in the 2020 fiscal year, compared with 85,000 in Obama’s last year in office.
“With so few arrivals coming, we just didn’t have individuals who were able to work out of that location and work the number of hours that we were offering,” Schriefer said. “With just a much smaller pool, we just weren’t getting the people to take those jobs.”
Inna Kolesnikova was one of the refugees who worked at the cafe, which opened in 2015. She spoke little English when she relocated from Belarus in 2016. Her first job, working at a fast-food Chinese restaurant, “was a nightmare,” she said.
In Belarus, she was employed as a magazine editor and worked in an office. But in the U.S., she could only find employment doing manual labor. At Spring Café, where she worked for two years, Kolesnikova discovered a place that embraced her and helped her grow, despite her language struggles.
“They believed in me and gave me a chance,” she said. “I gained confidence.”
Now, Kolesnikova is studying to be a nurse. She laments the closing as the end of a “magical place.”
Saowadee Melia immigrated from Thailand to the U.S. in 2012. While not a refugee, she found a job at Spring Café in 2017 and sold Thai tom yum soup out of the shop while she worked there. She now works at a salon. Melia said she was “very impressed” by how the cafe supported refugees.
Lawmakers, too, said they are sad to see Spring Café go. The shop was purposefully located, inside the First Baptist Church at the corner of West 14th Avenue and Grant Street, near the Capitol and government offices, to draw a crowd of civically driven people to engage with cafe employees, who were just learning about U.S. politics.
The cafe offers 10% off its orders to customers who correctly answer its daily global trivia question.
The cafe has been the scene of some of the most important meetings in and around the Colorado Capitol. It likely rivals the Capitol’s basement — which is constantly bustling with lobbyists, lawmakers and visitors when House and Senate are in session — in terms of popular meeting places.
The cafe is the closest coffee shop to the Capitol, which makes it an obvious spot to discuss legislative language and politics.
“It is the place to go around the Capitol,” said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat. “You always walk in there and there’s somebody of importance talking about important things related to Colorado’s future over a hot beverage.”
State Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat who just finished up her first year in the legislature, said she frequently went to the cafe to iron out legislation with other statehouse folks.
“I’ve had some tough conversations there,” she said. “We’ve worked through bill language sitting around those little tables.”
When Spring Institute first launched Spring Café, the hope was that it could eventually be a moneymaker for the nonprofit. That never happened. But the organization, which has helped refugees in Colorado since 1979, was able to slow losses to the point that the shop wasn’t a drag on its budget.
The institute agreed that as long as the cafe was fulfilling its mission, training new arrivals and helping them find better employment, Spring Café could remain open. However, a few months ago, after more than eight months without a new refugee hire, the board decided to close the cafe.
Schriefer says Spring Institute is looking to find jobs for the four cafe employees. They are also in discussions with other coffee shops who might be interested in taking over the space.
“The cafe has meant more than just being a coffee shop,” she said, “and that’s what kept us going for so long.”
Updated on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2019, at 9 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct how long Spring Café has been open. It has been open for four years.