Nonprofit that sought to buy local cafe raises community concern

Christine Stark is a writer, organizer, and speaker of Native and white ancestry. Her first novel, Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation, was a Lambda Literary Finalist. This is her first story for  North News.  The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the paper.

Christine Stark is a writer, organizer, and speaker of Native and white ancestry. Her first novel, Nickels: A Tale of Dissociation, was a Lambda Literary Finalist. This is her first story for North News. The views expressed are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the paper.

By Christine Stark Contributor

[Editor’s note: this story published in the 3/28 print edition of North News before it was announced that Emily’s Cafe had been sold within the family. This piece has been slightly updated to reflect that development.]

Emily’s Café has been a community anchor for over 50 years in Victory Neighborhood. Last fall the owners, Emily and Elliot, put the café up for sale. Stories Foundation, a non-profit, announced its interest in purchasing Emily’s to create a café that would educate customers and provide internships for trafficked youth. They held fundraisers online and at GracePoint Church to help purchase the café. After the announcement, confusion ensued about whether Emily’s had closed and some Victory neighbors expressed concerns about the non-profit. Ultimately Stories was unable to purchase the café and Emily’s remains open.

A major concern raised by some community members has been Stories’ collaboration with homophobic churches, like GracePoint Church. On an Oct. 11 North News Facebook thread, Kale Duden said, “Their association with a church that is anti-gay means they get zero support from me. We don’t need this kind of bigotry in our neighborhood.” In addition, Stories’s financial officer, Brian Stephany, is a board member of The Wilderness Fellowship Ministries, a Christian retreat that disavows same-sex marriage. Also, Page has a background in ministry and her husband is a youth minister at a church that links to the anti-LGBT Presidential Prayer Team, Family Research Council, and Minnesota Family Council, a sponsor of Parents Action League, deemed a hate group against LGBT people by Southern Poverty Law Center. 

Community members also expressed concern about the safety of youth working in the potential café, especially if they were identified as trafficking victims. Pointing out the connections between LGBT youth and vulnerability to trafficking on the North News thread, Emily Spiteri said, “And I would say it’s extremely tone deaf to ONLY partner with churches with non-inclusive stances on marriage and gender and claim you want to help fight sex trafficking. Those communities are one of the most vulnerable to be exploited.” 

As part of their fundraising efforts last fall, Stories stated they were working with The Link (a nonprofit that assists vulnerable youth) to provide internships for trafficked youth at the café. Yet, according to Beth Holger, The Link’s director, The Link never worked with Stories. Even after Holger told Page The Link would not work with them because “they publicly advertise that they are hiring youth victims…and we would not want to put the youth in situations like this,” Stories continued to state they were working with The Link, raising questions as to whether they misrepresented their connection with The Link to establish legitimacy to raise money. 

In February, a Victory Neighborhood Facebook post asked, “what happened with the money collected for the purchase [of Emily’s Café]? In an email, Page said the money is “in holding until the time for a building is right.” She said they are still interested in North Minneapolis. Stories also won money in an online vote-in contest through Mill City Credit Union, beating out direct service non-profits. Stories Foundation has a history of using public donations to buy infrastructure for the organization. For example, their fall mission statement stated they provide direct resourcing and micro-grants; however, their 2016 taxes indicate $949 of the $66,996, or 1.4% of their revenue, went to two direct service organizations. The rest went to purchase a food truck, accounting fees, other professional fees, miscellaneous, and savings. Their assets in 2016 were $30,902, roughly half their total revenue for the year. Their 2017 taxes have not been filed. 

Stories Foundation’s website states “Say that your cup of coffee goes toward abolishing a $190 billion industry…sounds incredible, right? That’s our café vision.” To some it does sound incredible—incredibly disingenuous. Local business owner Connie Beckers views Stories as “chas[ing] after non-profit monies to start a venture…” She believes more for-profit businesses are needed to create a healthy economy in North Minneapolis. 

Meanwhile, Elliot and Emily Benincasa have sold their cafe to their niece Anna Donato-Ghani and her husband Gabby Ghani.

Kenzie O'Keefe