THIS LITTLE LIGHT OF MINE

Creating community at Franny Lou’s Porch

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PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEAL SANTOS

“I like to think of Franny Lou’s vibe as an Afro-futuristic Southern grandma’s house,” says Blew Kind of her coffee shop. “Sit in a rocking chair and stay awhile.” There are actual rocking chairs in her café.

We’re in the back room at Franny Lou’s Porch, the East Kensington coffee shop Kind opened in 2014. She is tall and slender, with a warm smile and a calm dignity that makes her seem somehow older than her 27 years. She’s just finished nursing her cherubic 3-month-old daughter. Behind her a regular customer, a man in his 40s, settles into a wooden rocking chair and takes a turn holding the baby.

There’s definitely a homespun feel to Franny Lou’s that’s worlds away from the sleek brushed steel and polished concrete of Fishtown pour-over peddlers like ReAnimator Coffee and La Colombe. Here, flower boxes bloom by the front door; inside, wicker armchairs beckon guests to relax and chat.

Above the pastry case, a handmade wooden shelf holds green plants and day-old pastries. A friendly young woman serves me an apple-cheddar biscuit on a plate with a painted strawberry on it, and I realize with a shock of recognition that my grandmother had the same plates in her kitchen, decades ago.

“Things that remind us of our grandparents make it feel like a home,” says Kind. “We want elders to feel welcome here. We have customers who have lived here for generations. Part of our mission is to be a community space for all walks of life.” She gestures through the window at the construction site across the street. “Including the big developers here.”

Big developers have indeed entered this neighborhood in droves. Franny Lou’s is located at the corner of Coral and York Streets, just a few blocks west of bustling Frankford Avenue, where ultrahip boutiques and art galleries sit side by side with small family-run businesses that have served the community for many decades. Fishtown is hot; The New York Times has lauded its “creative renaissance.” Over the past few years, this hype drove up real-estate prices and rents accordingly. Just to the west, between Frankford Avenue and the El, multicultural East Kensington has been feeling the effects. Weekdays bring a cacophony of construction noise as new, eco-friendly homes are built and old rowhouses gutted and renovated.

This fast-paced change means it’s not uncommon for working-class residents to encounter the real-estate developers whose properties are slowly pushing them out—right here in the coffee line at Franny Lou’s. For her part, Kind tries to get her customers talking to each other— no matter how different they seem. “Where else could these people meet face to face and look each other in the eye?” She adds that making the shop a mixed-income space is important to her. Affordable prices, a public computer, and a welcoming atmosphere are part of creating that. The goal is a gathering place where people of all ages, income levels and ethnicities can connect, chat and feel like they have a stake in making the neighborhood a better place.

The name Franny Lou’s Porch reflects that goal, combining two of Kind’s role models: Fannie Lou Hamer and Frances E.W. Harper. Hamer, born in 1917 in Mississippi, was a leading light in the civil rights movement who braved jail, beatings and KKK bullets to register African American voters and demand a seat at the Democratic Party’s table. She is also known for popularizing “This Little Light of Mine” as a freedom song.

Harper, born free in Baltimore in 1825, was an abolitionist activist, journalist and poet who played an active role in the Underground Railroad, helping enslaved people escape to freedom. Together, quiet, dignified Franny and outspoken, magnetic Fannie Lou inform a vision of brave, self-possessed, steadfastly faithful African American women who utterly refused to give up. Their presence at Franny Lou’s starts conversations every day about African American history, liberation theology and more.

Kind, a native of Virginia, first pulled espresso as a teen, working at Starbucks. There she learned about fair-trade coffee and grew to value the barista arts. After high school, she came north to Philadelphia to attend the University of the Arts. She felt energized by the city and found a supportive community in the Circle of Hope network of Anabaptist churches—and came to realize that she had a different calling.

“God told me to open a coffee shop!” Kind tells me with a smile. “I knew my purpose was to bridge some gaps.” She couldn’t shake that feeling, she explains, and at the age of 22 she told her professors she had to leave school and start a business. “I think school was just supposed to bring me here,” she says.

At a Christian music festival, she met Les Stoneham, founder of Deeper Roots Coffee in Cincinnati, Ohio. Stoneham didn’t just roast coffee, he told Kind. He was working through an entirely new business model, sourcing beans directly from farmers in Guatemala and working with them to develop the infrastructure necessary to process them. The result was a system that paid farmers a much greater share of the proceeds than most “fair-trade” systems.

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Above a shelf full of art supplies, customers show off their works

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Locally made soaps, baby clothes, and crafts for sale

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Customers can answer a “question of the month”
on slips of paper. Displayed are the answers to last
month’s question: “What inspires you to create?”

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A bulletin board tells the stories of civil rights activist
Fannie Lou Hamer and abolitionist writer Frances E.W.
Harper, the inspirations for the name Franny Lou’s

Kind had been busy working on ways to build a business that would be honest, accountable and genuine, and the Deeper Roots model resonated for her. She called Stoneham, who offered her a deal: If she used his beans, he’d lease her a top-of-the-line espresso machine. “He didn’t know me, but he mailed me $5,000 worth of equipment,” says Kind. She began selling coffee at local events and started a coffee-buying club through her church, where she was also working as an assistant pastor. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and within a year she made enough money to pay off the equipment and open a shop: Leotah’s Place, named for her mother, who died when Kind was a teenager.

Leotah’s was also located at Coral and York, just across the street from where Franny Lou’s is today. Its three rooms were airy and welcoming, full of art and rickety secondhand furniture. Kind gave birth to her first child, Gibran, not long after opening Leotah’s and threw herself wholeheartedly into the challenge of combining motherhood with running a small business. She named lattes after her heroes: Sojourner Truth, Steve Biko, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King. She created a kids’ corner; sold yarn, pottery and jewelry made by local artists; and succeeded in creating a friendly neighborhood space, one where regular customers knew they’d always run into at least one friend.

The shop was popular in the neighborhood and received positive publicity in the local press, but after a few years, Kind ran into trouble with her landlord. The building, an old brick rowhouse of the type found everywhere in Kensington, was unsound. “I had construction workers who came in every day. Every morning they’d tell me, ‘Blew, the next time somebody slams that door, your wall’s going to come down.’ I was more and more worried, but the landlord wouldn’t fix it.” The situation escalated, with Kind and her landlord fighting tooth and nail, but after a few months the city’s Department of Licenses and Inspections declared the building uninhabitable. Kind was forced to shut down her business.

Community building is hard work, but it has its advantages. After a few years in business, Kind and Leotah’s had earned the support of a whole network of customers, churchgoers, and neighbors, who threw a fundraising party to help with repairs. Kind was moved by their efforts, but her battle with the landlord had come to an end: At the party, she had to announce that Leotah’s had closed for good. Even with Leotah’s gone, Kind knew her mission wasn’t finished.

With the help of her community, she created a Kickstarter campaign and began looking for a new space. In the meantime, she began teaching art at Rhodes Elementary School through the ArtWell program, led West African drumming classes through Circle of Hope and leaned heavily on the support of her community. “My equipment and furniture lived in five different basements,” she says ruefully.

Before long, though, a former Leotah’s regular stepped in to help. Jim Rolleter, 40, who grew up in the neighborhood back in the “bad old days,” makes his living flipping houses in Fishtown. He’d been considering buying the building across the street from Leotah’s. “I was thinking since she was doing good things there, it was a good corner to invest in,” he says. “She’d already done so much on that corner; why start over from scratch?” He purchased the building immediately, then asked a mutual friend to connect him with Kind.

With the building secured, Kind began the work of bringing her vision for Franny Lou’s to life. Creating the right feel meant lots of warm wood, most of it recovered from older houses. Rolleter worried that gutting the building would mean stripping it of its character, but some exposed brick and the reclaimed wood, as well as doors and other materials salvaged from Leotah’s, brought the same homelike vibe to Franny Lou’s. The work of restoring and installing the wood turned out to be a labor of love in more ways than one: In May 2014 Blew married Aaron Kind, 23, a talented carpenter whom she met during the renovation, and in the summer of 2015 their daughter was born.

Once again, Kind was combining entrepreneurship with motherhood.

“I’m a mother first and foremost,” she says, and she makes no apologies for tending to her children while she tends to her shop. Gibran, now 3, chats with customers, and everyone pitches in. If it takes a village to raise a child, there’s no question that the Kind family have created their village. Their Afrocentric outlook means making sure that the shop is family-friendly, so Kind engaged local designer Stephanie Lee Jackson of Practical Sanctuary to create a children’s nook in the shop. Tucked behind the coffee bar, with thistles painted in a soft lavender, it’s a cozy spot full of toys, books and crayons.

“Children are really intrinsic to our community,” Kind says, “so we welcome mamas. You don’t have to feel self-conscious here.” A few adult-sized seats look in, so caregivers can supervise their children, but the shop is designed to keep the play area separate from the back room, where students and freelancers work on laptops at tables. A small bookshelf between the two areas holds paper and art supplies; a sign encourages customers of all ages to get creative.

Making the shop a mixed-income space
is important. Affordable prices, a public
computer and a welcoming atmosphere are
part of that. She named lattes after her heroes:
Sojourner Truth, Steve Biko, Dorothy Day,
Martin Luther King.

Mothers are honored here as workers, not just as customers. “I want my baker to always be a mother,” Kind says. “Mothers bring a care and love and attention to detail to their food.” Since Franny Lou’s opened, its baker has been Mariko Snook, who lives just a few blocks away. Snook and Kind met just as Kind was making her first forays into selling coffee, and Snook’s homemade baked goods were a perfect companion for the brew.

Snook says the flexible hours allow her to fit paid employment in with the demands of homeschooling her two young children. Kind makes her own biscuits and brings in vegan and gluten-free treats from local specialists, but everything else is created by Snook in the shop’s convection oven.

Snook also embraces the Franny Lou’s ethos, which emphasizes what Kind calls “direct and relational trade.” Inspired by Stoneham and Deeper Roots, she doesn’t just source local or “fair-trade” goods, but instead makes a serious effort to buy directly from people near and far in ways that support good jobs and create real, personal relationships between grower, seller and customer—with no middleman.

Chocolate treats are made with Dean’s Beans chocolate, the first fairtrade and relationship chocolate to be sold in the United States. Kind and Snook also employ natural alternatives to white sugar and high-fructose corn syrup whenever possible, such as maple syrup, agave nectar and honey—and in an effort to reduce food waste, Snook uses leftover croissants to make a rich, satisfying bread pudding. Even the shop’s handmade crafts are sourced through direct relationships with creators in Haiti, Ghana and Philadelphia.

Adding to the “village” vibe, employees at Franny Lou’s are called “tribe members.” Everyone gets a voice in how the business is run, Kind says, and honesty and respect are core values. If a dispute arises, the “tribe” uses a peaceful reconciliation process to come to a resolution. Villages are small, and that means every single person counts.

Kind’s baby, who is now blowing bubbles on my lap, is part of that. So is the Temple student wiping tables. That white-haired man from around the corner whose cane rests against the wicker chair while he enjoys a muffin. That tall teenager in the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt and headphones taking his 20-minute turn on the computer. That chic young woman tapping away at her laptop. The real-estate developers. The roofers. They’re all part of it, too.

Blew Kind sees them. She sits erect, her slender shoulders squared, her natural curls tied back with a scarf in a graceful upsweep. She surveys the shop with a business owner’s eye—the cream needs to be refilled, the brickwork laid for the new outdoor patio—but there’s no coldness here: She sees them, and they respond to the warmth of her welcome as though they are all visitors here on her porch.

Franny Lou’s Porch
2400 Coral St., Philadelphia
215.749.2114
frannylousporch.org

RECIPE

Apple-Cheddar Drop Biscuits

 

 

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