Tough Times at Hard Times Cafe

Thomas Douty

The Hard Times Cafe has been a scene of angst and upheaval for the past several weeks and now teeters on the possibility of closing its doors for good.
The owners and many volunteers have sacrificed paychecks, time and tears in order to return to their jobs at the cafe.
But it appears the battle is far from over.
By refusing to sign a 16-point contract brought down by city officials regarding the cafe’s security and management, cafe owners placed themselves at risk of having their business license revoked.
Although cafe owners agreed with most of the city’s recommendations, several key items would put the cafe in financial jeopardy.
Despite pressure from the city to change their business style, and against the backdrop of neighborhood residents waiting patiently for their door to unlock, Hard Times owners intend to reopen Tuesday.
Police raided the cafe Jan. 26. The raid resulted in a number of arrests and caused one of its owners to voluntarily close the doors. Weathering inspections by health and fire department officials, the cooperative members — 16 people collectively own and run the cafe — have spent the last three weeks trying to restart a business that doubles as a community center.
If the cafe hadn’t closed the day of the raid, the police would have shut it down, although they had no legal bearing to do so.
The next day, the police confronted the cafe owners again as they tried to clean up the mess left by the police action. One of the owners was cited for obstruction of justice by officers who had entered through a locked door at the rear of the building. It wasn’t until the cafe’s attorney Bob Dildine explained the owners had a right to be there that police left.
Since then, the coffee shop has passed health inspections and recently met all city fire code regulations applied to them; the owners completely replaced a rear entrance Saturday, the last repair before reopening.
But Miki Takata, one of the cafe’s owners and officers, is not holding her breath. She said right now she is looking for the best and preparing for the worst.
Clara Schmit-Gonzalez, assistant director of the Minneapolis Licensing and Consumer Services Office, will recommend to an administrative law judge that the cafe’s license to operate be revoked in the next few weeks.
Sharon Labinski, downtown commander for the Minneapolis police, said there are many alternative businesses in the area that do not attract police attention.
“The heart of this is selling drugs,” she said. “The ones selling drugs out of the cafe should be the ones answering the questions.”
City officials view Hard Times as a conduit for drug trafficking in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood. Schmit-Gonzalez said because cafe owners refused to sign the contract, they have not addressed the problem of drug trafficking occurring in the building.
Schmit-Gonzalez said several owners knew drugs were being dealt through the cafe.
Among its various points, the contract recommended the cafe schedule shift managers, close by 2 a.m. every night, staff a licensed security guard between midnight and 2 a.m. and end the sale of tobacco-related items such as rolling papers.
However, the cafe cannot afford to hire additional security guards, nor close at 2 a.m., because the cafe is one of the only 24-hour businesses in the area.
The owners agreed not to sell rolling papers, but objected to the provision banning the on-site sale of commercially packaged tobacco. The cafe has a license to operate 24 hours and sell cigarettes.
Takata told the licensing office that the cafe could not afford these things. In response, Schmit-Gonzalez suggested the cafe should not be open at all, Takata said.
Takata was disappointed that the commission was unwilling to negotiate the terms of the contract and didn’t even look at Hard Times’ counter proposal, which included installing mirrors, removing pay phones, only operating until 4 a.m., and supplying its own security guard.

A matter of perspective
The Jan. 26 raid ended with Minneapolis police arresting two men for allegedly selling small quantities of narcotics to undercover police officers.
One of the men arrested was a former owner of the cooperative, Martin Johnson. Johnson voluntarily resigned from the cooperative following his release because he violated cooperative policies that banned drugs in the cafe.
Eventually, Minneapolis police arrested and charged two other men for narcotics violations in relation to the police’s undercover operation. Neither of these men were connected to the cafe.
Two days after the Minneapolis police raid, Hard Times Cafe crew members held a news conference to tell their side of the story — a side that had been ignored in the local media.
They were disappointed to find that only two news organizations bothered to show up. They were upset that while nearly all of the Twin Cities news crews jumped on the raid, none bothered to follow up on the cafe’s point of view.
Seven owners, as well as a concerned volunteer, Mary Jane Mueller sat around a couple tables, sipped coffee and shared stories about what they had learned through the cafe.
They expressed their fears and concerns about their relationship with Minneapolis police.
“Why would police put us in danger by having a sting operation in our business?” said Kim Anderson, a cooperative member.
The cooperative was concerned that it was being blamed for the crime element in the Cedar-Riverside area.
Two weeks before the raid, drive-by shooters sprayed bullets into the cafe. The cafe owners said they had ejected the shooters from Hard Times just hours before the attack, yet police blamed them for not recognizing a criminal element in the cafe.
“We physically put ourselves in danger constantly and try to do a good job,” Takata said.
She makes such sacrifices for the cafe because it gives her something more to care about than just paying rent or making payments, Takata said.
Her family is familiar with the scrutiny of government officials. Her father was put into an internment camp during World War II for three years, while one of his brothers fought for the Japanese and another for the United States.
“That’s the best part about this place. You have so many people and stories here,” Takata said.

From modest to hardest
The Hard Times Cafe had been the most successful business to occupy the building since 1969.
The Hard Times opened in a building once held by a motorcycle dealership from the early 1900s until 1969.
It was vacant for most of the 1970s. Thus began a string of unsuccessful restaurants in a troubled neighborhood until the Hard Times Cafe took over in 1992.
This is not the first time the cafe has had trouble working with public officials, said one of its original founding members. The cafe faced tremendous scrutiny when it applied for a 24-hour license, said Starri Hedges.
David Markle, who has lived and worked in the area for nearly 20 years, attributed the failure of businesses to bad management by city developers and poor housing policies by the University.
In November 1992, eight people working at the then-Urban Peasant turned the failing restaurant into what is now the Hard Times Cafe.
The group wanted to establish a safe atmosphere for people of all races, classes and cultures to come together and enjoy coffee and vegetarian food.
Hedges said for the first six weeks, the employees were so devoted to the cafe’s success they all worked without pay.
The founding members of the cafe have all moved on, but each generation maintained the philosophy of serving quality food and providing a liberal atmosphere.
Takata prefers being a member of a co-op because she enjoys “being able to work with people rather than for people,” she said.
Joyce Raen, who has worked with the now defunct Riverside Cafe that was located across Riverside Avenue from Hard Times, said the cafe has survived because it is a community center as well as a restaurant.
The cafe offers people who have nowhere else to go a place to meet and share stories. Social service agents often rescue troubled teenagers from the Minneapolis streets through the cafe.

Thomas Douty covers cops and courts and welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3233.