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Building A Trans-Inclusive Queer POC-Operated Community Cafe In The Age Of COVID

Losing a parent to coronavirus is devastating, but honoring that memory helps drive the spirit of Philadelphia's first cafe owned by a queer person of color.

Sonam Parikh is co-owner of Mina’s World, the first coffee shop in Philadelphia owned by a queer person of color. Born in New York to Indian parents, Parikh turned to hospitality after a decade in the music industry. Mina’s World has become an inclusive community hub that puts affordable coffee, food, and crafts to the forefront. This includes a community fridge Parikh started to honor her father, who passed away from COVID.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where everybody on our block were neighbors and someone was always bringing plates over. I wouldn’t say that I grew up with any kind of gastronomy in the upscale sense, but I grew up around many, many different cultures. When my dad first came to America from India, he was so homesick one day and just wanted to eat food from his culture, but he had very little money. Something pushed him to go and sit at this restaurant. When the bill came, his eyes welled up with tears, and he said, “I can’t pay for this, but I miss home so much.” The restaurant owner told him, “That’s okay brother. Get in the back and do some dishes.”

After that, my dad spent his formative years in little Indian restaurants, just cooking. He eventually learned a lot, and that was how he supported himself before he met my mom. Even though he didn’t go on to work in the industry, his love of cooking never went away. I think my family’s happiest moments were on the big cook days, when my dad gave all of us tasks and we hunkered down and made curry for eight hours. It’s really fun.

In the beginning of my career, I worked in the music industry. I played in bands, but I also was a booking agent and tour manager. Tour managers require a lot of the same skills as hospitality workers—a person who interfaces with venues and large organizations and makes time-based judgment calls. The cross-section between the two communities is so interesting. I think there is a passion in both music and food. Both are forms of art. Both music and food are people-based, guttural, and instinct-heavy. And I think music itself is so nostalgic, as is food.

I realize, for me, one of the key differences in running a cafe and community space, as compared to being a tour manager, is that having a place-based endeavor creates more ability to be interactive, productive, and helpful in my community. There’s so many things to be passionate about together, like feeding people and creating mutual aid initiatives.

Opening Mina’s World has been a four-year building process, which was not easy. We’ve had runaway contractors, and we’ve had a flood. We’ve had our equipment stolen. We’ve had personal family matters. It’s been quite a strenuous buildup, but it finally ended up happening in the best way possible.

Initially, Mina’s World was supposed to be a space where the cafe aspect of the businesses would fund a music venue. We wanted to create an arts program. However, due to COVID, that’s not something we can do anymore. That kind of contact is not currently available to us. As a result, the community aspect and space turned into something productive. Instead of having concerts and programming, we spend a lot of our time doing food runs and collecting donations.

Mina’s World interior and staff. Photo: Courtesy Mina’s World.

We also have our community fridge, which has been a wonderful undertaking, many months in the making. We finally have something that a lot of people our age—people of color, queer people—don’t have. This small, little space is ours, all 1,100 square feet of our own. If we want to put something there, we have the agency to do that. This is something that’s not traditionally granted to a lot of people who fit our profile. Having the opportunity to operate inside a building, on a public block, is profound. It really goes to show that having access to something like space—when you don’t have to ask somebody else for permission—creates potential for so much aid, productivity, and care.

West Philadelphia is a beautiful community. We are in a place with a lot of daycares, apartments, and a beautiful park. We are fortunate to have a lot of people pass by our store. However, I have come to notice that there aren’t enough grocery stores around us. The community fridge is a way to feed everybody with no judgment and no prerequisites.

I started the community fridge with my sister Sonia after my dad passed away from COVID as a project to memorialize him. I’m sure like a lot of people have read a lot about COVID and know how isolated and completely lonely that kind of death is.

The fridge started out after we kept getting an influx of calls from random families who told us, “Your dad used to buy me groceries.” Or, “Your dad always dropped off food at my door. He’s so nice.” Or, “You know, your mom and dad used to come over and bring us diapers when the kids were growing up.”

This multitude of stories illustrated his humble acts of mutual aid. Finding out how invested he was in food justice—both in our communities and also in their hometown in India, to which he never returned to—was really beautiful. So for me and my sister, it seemed very natural to try to start a fridge, to try to fill it with delicious, beautiful, nutritious, and organic food. Not having been able to say goodbye to him, not being able to experience any sort of conclusion with his passing—the fridge was a way to honor my dad. If I could do one thing, it would be to keep the fridge going for him.

The fridge is emptied in under eight hours, and in just one week we’ve processed 1,200 pounds of food. Mina’s World became a zero-food-waste shop because any little bits of food left at the end of the day, we put it in the fridge and guarantee that it won’t go to waste. Right now, we literally have 50 pounds of radish, as well as 12 pre-made meals and some beautiful gluten-free donuts. We didn’t mean for this to happen. But it did, and it’s beautiful, which fits into the whole story of Mina’s World.

We figured out after opening that we were the first POC queer-run coffee shop in Philadelphia. I know there aren’t a lot of women of color coffee shop owners in the country, but there are in Philly. There’s Franny Lou’s, there’s Amalgam Comics—all amazing and powerful places. But we didn’t know of any trans-inclusive, queer-operated and -owned hubs. But that wasn’t ever what we set out to do. We never set out to be the queer coffee shop that incidentally has very amazing coffee and food. But I think in 2020, when identity politics are such an important and marketable thing, I think our trans-inclusive queerness was a way for a lot of people to get the word out there about us and highlight what makes us different.

Location choice was and is really, really, really important. I think that it’s a very well-known fact, especially in the hospitality industry, especially in the coffee industry, that cafes mark the first wave of gentrification into a neighborhood. The effects of gentrification are devastating, especially on the 52nd Street corridor here, and in Philadelphia overall.

I know this because my family and I were gentrified out of Brooklyn. If I could have stayed in my hometown and created any viable sort of job and ecosystem for myself, I would have, a hundred percent. I miss my hometown every day, but it’s not somewhere I can afford to be. I don’t have access to those things. And I don’t know if I’ll ever have enough money to move back to Brooklyn. I have to be in a place my family can afford, and I have to be in a place where there is a queer community that’s not disrupting the delicate ecosystem of any Black community.

And so when I think about gentrifying the neighborhood, I have to think about the larger things at play. Gentrification itself—it’s not a singular thing. It’s not because of one person. It’s because of a massive movement of real estate and citywide infrastructural problems, and so many other things. But while those things can be true, I also always have to keep in mind that cafes are agents of gentrification.

So what do we do to make sure that all folks feel welcome at our cafe? The cost of the coffee—our coffee is sourced very, very, very lovingly and painstakingly with relationships that endure and have popularity, no matter how low or high the crop costs. We take sourcing our coffee very seriously, which means it’s expensive.

Yet, I know from my own personal experiences that honestly, not many people are well-versed in coffee culture. So we offer a $2 cup of coffee, and we make sure that there’s always food under $5 on our menu.

A staple at the shop is our $2 samosas. I used to go to Jackson Heights in New York every Sunday and shop at the Indian bazaars. My parents would pick up the vegetables that were in season, get the latest bootleg Bollywood DVD, and catch up on community Indian news. When my little sister and I would get hungry and impatient, they would always say, “You’ll have a samosa.” Samosas are a compact palm-sized food that I’ve just come to equate with tiny joy—the tiny joy of walking around with your family and being within your culture. I never really thought samosas would become such a facet of Mina’s World, but they are the most popular thing.

We may not make money off of drip coffee and samosas, and our menu and offerings may not make sense to a lot of people, but there are measures that we have to put into place to make sure that it’s accessible and welcoming to everyone. That’s my biggest focus, always. I love my block. I never want anybody to feel cast away.

That’s also why we are really intentional about who works at Mina’s World. Having worked in coffee for the last 10 years, I noticed I was extravagantly qualified, and yet I never got a promotion no matter how many hours I worked, or how many policies I helped implement, or how good I was at customer acquisition or simply creating new drinks. I was aware I was talented. But it became that very tired but familiar story where I would watch my coworkers get promoted around me.

There’s not a lot of advancement for queer women, brown women, or Black folks in general, and especially Black trans people in the coffee world. When one thinks of a specialty cafe, there’s a very starchy and sterile image that comes to mind. And a lot of what goes into our team at Mina’s World is making sure that we have Black folks and trans folks in managerial positions—that we have people who have experienced trauma in the hands of the coffee industry—and have them excel here. We make plans and assess timelines for our employees. We ask questions. Where do you want to go after this? Do you want to get into roasting, is that a track that we should put you towards? Should we try to get you in a roasting apprenticeship? So much of Mina’s World is about creating opportunity because you just can.

In hospitality, there are ideas about inclusion like, “Oh, we can’t afford it,” or “Oh, it’s just the way it is.” But it’s simply not true. Being the person in control, being the person looking at the money, being the person who’s calling the shots—I can promise you there is a way to make it work. A place where your employees get paid at least 15 bucks an hour and are happy. And you can still keep your shop open, because if I can do it through COVID, I think anybody can.

Businesses are failing and not being held to a moral or economic standard. The idea that there isn’t a moral standard in the workplace, and that labor is very disposable—it’s the crux of why the hospitality industry is experiencing so much failure. A lot of people look down at service work and the food industry and say things like, “Oh, if I really can’t find a job, I guess I’ll wait tables.” People look at it as a last resort, or not a respectable job. But it’s actually quite involved, a quite incredible industry. And it can be just as lucrative as a lot of other blue- and white-collar jobs.

What makes up the beating heart of Mina’a World is all of the people around us. Its working parts and shape are formed by people’s suggestions. All of our baristas share their feelings about what should and shouldn’t be in the store. It’s this beautiful lump of clay that we’re all shaping and molding and putting our energy into.