Northside landmark moves closer to closing

 Stephanie Page, alongside her daughter and mother (not pictured here), stopped by Emily’s F & M Cafe to meet and meet with cafe owners Emily and Elliot Sr. Benincasa.  Photo by Sherrill Thurston.

Stephanie Page, alongside her daughter and mother (not pictured here), stopped by Emily’s F & M Cafe to meet and meet with cafe owners Emily and Elliot Sr. Benincasa. Photo by Sherrill Thurston.

A viral Facebook video made the rounds around North Minneapolis this week. The subject: the sale of Emily’s F & M Cafe.

According to Emily Benincasa, who purchased the cafe in the 1980s, a purchasing agreement has been signed with the Stories Foundation, but the sale has not been finalized yet. The building’s selling price is $400,000, negotiated down from $500,000.

“I don’t want to speak on this until the deal is finalized,” said Benincasa, “I do need this to happen. I’m too old. I’m 78. My husband (Elliot Sr.) is 81. We work seven days a week.”

The Stories Foundation is a non-profit which seeks to bring awareness and educate people around the problem of human trafficking in Minnesota and beyond. According to Executive Director Stephanie Page, their goal is to turn Emily’s F & M into Stories Cafe. The Stories Foundation already has one food venture, the Freedom Truck, a food truck that the foundation calls a “cause on wheels.”

The video announcing the potential purchase of Emily’s F & M appeared live on Facebook early afternoon on Oct. 8. It was quickly shared around through community groups launching a conversation around the future of Emily’s, as community members shared both their memories of the space and their thoughts on its future. As part of the video, Page also launched a fundraising campaign meant to raise funds for the down payment and additional building costs.

Page hopes to raise $50,000 through community fundraising: $800/day throughout October, $20,000 through a Nov. 1 fundraising event, and $10,000 from Nov. 2 - Nov. 15. Donations can be made through the foundation’s website: http://storiesfoundation.org/stories-in-a-building/

Benincasa’s niece, Anna Donato - Ghani, has been supporting her aunt and uncle in the sale of the property and stopped by the cafe on Tuesday to discuss the video with her aunt. She is quick to assuage community concern that the Stories Cafe will diminish the historical importance of the Emily’s.

“When you have a family that has run this place like it has, this is so positive, such a wonderful thing to do,” said Donato - Ghani, “People need to calm down and understand that this will get our youth off the street and onto a better path in life. Still, you can’t take away 36 years of Emily, 9 years of Gus, and 25 years of Florence and Millie, we want the Stories Foundation to understand that and marry that to their work.”

Community discussion on social media ranged widely, but several individuals discussed their concerns that the organization’s business plan would be unfeasible while others wondered if the organization was faith-based (it is not) and whether or not it would no longer be an inclusive community gathering space. Others worried about staff who had not been informed that a purchasing agreement had been signed.

“I had had no idea that the staff had not been told about us,” said Page. “I just want to feed the community good food and educate people around human trafficking.”

The Stories Cafe has been a longtime goal of the foundation, long before the sale of Emily’s came into the picture. According to their website, the cafe is meant to be a community gathering place. As part of this, the foundation is partnering with The Link with the goal of hiring 3 - 4 young interns to staff the cafe, who either experienced sex trafficking or are considered vulnerable to human trafficking. The Foundation is currently soliciting community donations to purchase the space. Page’s goal is to raise the down payment needed to secure the loan and as much more as possible to decrease the monthly mortgage. The sale has also gotten the attention of the local neighborhood association.

“The Victory Neighborhood Association has advocated for whatever goes into that space. We would be supportive of whoever is purchasing the property,” said Brandon Knez, the ViNA Board Chair.

If the purchase goes through, the restaurant would be closed temporarily for some construction, though Page hopes to have it reopened by mid-January 2019. Page is not yet sure whether the cafe would remain a sit-down cafe or become a more casual restaurant. She does hope to partition off the back in order to create a community meeting room and she does have plans to sell fair trade and locally sourced food and merchandise.

On Nov. 1, the Stories Foundation will be holding a fundraiser and information night at the GracePoint Church in New Brighton, MN. The event, which includes dinner, programming, and merchandise sales, will be held from 6:30pm - 8:30pm. Tickets are $20. Page hopes to raise $20,000 for the down payment through the event. While the organization does partner with faith-based communities, the foundation is not itself a faith-based organization.

Human trafficking is $150 billion global industry, which include sex trafficking and labor trafficking. According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota is one of 13 US Cities with particularly high incidences of child prostitution and in 2015 had the third highest number of human trafficking cases.

Emily’s is open 7 days a week from 7am - 2pm. And if you’re wondering what the F & M stand for, it’s for “Florence and Millie,” who were sisters and the original cafe owners when it opened (under a different name) in the late 1940s.

“I’ve eaten at Emily’s multiple times. What a legacy she has. She’s been such an anchor in the community. Our whole thing at the foundation is stories, so we know that her legacy and story will be part of the story at The Stories Cafe. It’s going to be a transition and there will be grieving, but we’ll still have good food and we’ll still be a welcoming space.”

As for what Emily plans to do if the sale goes through, “I have no idea yet. But I’m going to enjoy my family, my children and my grandchildren.”

Cirien Saadeh