The three friends behind the new pop-up at Comune aren't just serving caffeinated beverages. They want to change how the service industry works.
Parable might be the city’s newest coffee spot, but its owners—Ben Willis, Jeffrey Clark and Wyatt Burk—have worked in the local coffee scene for years. Willis and Clark—a photographer and tap dancer by trade, respectively—met while working at One Line Coffee. Burk owns a small roasting company called Little Ghost Roasters. He also ran The Bitter Barista, a coffee shop inside of the former Angry Baker location in the University District, for two years. Parable opened in early October, inside of the plant-based restaurant Comune on Parsons Avenue.
Columbus Monthly spoke to Willis, Clark and Burk about the beginnings of Parable and their plan to create a business that serves its employees and community.Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Tell me about Parable: how it started and how you guys came up with the idea for it.
Ben Willis: Me and Jeffrey have worked in coffee a long time, just like Wyatt, and there's a lot of congruent themes in the cafe and overall service industry. There's not a lot of [upward] mobility. You just have to wait your time to get a raise. But then, when you're supposed to get it, there was always an excuse about how something wasn't set up the right way, or how there wasn't money for it, or that it's not accessible right now. We started to run into these barriers more and more frequently as we were with the company toward the end of our time there. We started thinking about, why is it structured in a way that doesn't allow you to do these things and take care of the people who are at your job working and making sure your company is running?
Did you have any hesitancy or worries about opening a new business in the middle of this pandemic?
Willis: I definitely was nervous, just because we've been told for years about how all the things we're trying to initiate won't work. We don't do tipping. Everything is built into the cost. In seven weeks in doing this pop-up, not one person has asked why that is. There's not been one negative response about the cost of our items. If you do something and you do it to the highest degree that you can, you can attach a value to it. It's very simple at that point. The response that we've had from our guests and our community and the people who continue to show up for a cafe that's only open three days a week is astounding. I think it's important that other cafes and other service industry folks can see that you don't have to accept the way that things have been handed to us. You can change those things.
Do you think that some of the things you're addressing in your business as far as worker equity and pay, are those issues more illuminated now because of the pandemic?
Wyatt Burk: I think that a lot of people are more aware, but not a lot of people are having any luck with finding solutions to it. Some businesses got a little bit of money to throw their way to their employees. We know that not all that money went to the right place. There are definitely more people in the know now, but I don't think anybody has as good of an idea or has made much progress on anything like we have here.
Do you have plans to open your own storefront?
Burk: We've discussed a couple of times of what it looks like to bring on another partner, what it looks like to bring somebody on part time. It's kind of just, we'll see where it goes type of thing. It's one of our core principles to stay malleable. We don't want to overextend ourselves. We don't want to put too much pressure on like our community and our customers. We're going to go where the community says we should go, where we think we can do best, and wherever people are gonna join us.
Jeffrey Clark: We're always thinking of what else we can do. Not overextending ourselves, but using our imagination and innovating, especially right now, because that's what needs to happen is innovation and creativity around like all these crazy problems that the restaurant industry and the cafe industry are running into. I also will say that I very much enjoy the idea of—whether it's Comune or someone else—being in a shared space. I think it very much aligns with our ideas and values.
It sounds like the three of you see Parable as more than just a coffee shop. It seems like you see it like a community incubator.
Willis: I think that's exactly it. It's definitely more than just doing business. We are trying to change the environment. You come in and you feel like you're a part of something bigger than yourself. It's really, honestly, easy to do, if you are authentic and genuine in what your aim is to do.
What's your take on the local hospitality and dining scene and how everyone's handling all this uncertainty?
Clark: There is a lot changing and a lot of iconic spots in Columbus that have been closing down throughout the pandemic in the past couple months and weeks. I think, again, that just goes to show how important it is to be able to have that community support, whether that's other restaurants or other guests. These things only work if the people can show up and support that.
The three of you have known each other for a while, but is there anything you've learned about each other while working together?
Willis: I would say just how open and responsive and trusting we've all been with one another. The only way this works is we have to be vulnerable, we have to admit to one another our capacities and our incapacities, so that maybe someone else can pick up that weight that someone else can't carry.