Michael Premo Talks Affordable Housing, Coffee and Jobs

The South Side’s Community Development for All People prepares to break into the coffee shop scene with a social enterprise aimed at job training and placement.

Emma Frankart Henterly
Columbus Monthly
Left, Michael Premo; right, a South End Café-branded mug

Community Development for All People is no stranger to the South Side. Since 2003, the nonprofit arm of the United Methodist Church for All People has engaged in “radical hospitality” to improve the quality of life for those living in the neighborhood south of Downtown (and more recently, Linden) through a free store, affordable housing initiatives, job training programs and myriad other services designed to uplift those who are struggling to make ends meet.

Early next year, however, CD4AP will embark on an entirely new venture: a coffee shop on Parsons Avenue, aptly named the South End Café. And you can expect more than just java at this establishment, which will operate as a social enterprise with the goal of job training and eventual placement of its workers at other partner organizations. It will occupy the ground floor of a former hotel that The Kelley Cos., in partnership with CD4AP, is redeveloping into the café and about several dozen affordable housing units at 1951 Parsons Ave. The café, slated to open in February, initially will have 10-15 employees on staff. Columbus State’s culinary arts program is helping CD4AP develop the menu.

Columbus Monthly sat down with Michael Premo, CD4AP’s director of engagement, to talk more about this latest venture. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did this project come about?

There’s a building down in the 1900 block of Parsons Avenue that was controlled by Community Housing Network, and it had 24 very small apartment units that were what’s called “permanent supportive housing.” It’s for people who are on some kind of aid program, but they are not able to work. So Community Housing Network built a brand-new building, moved their residents over and then basically deeded us the building. The city of Columbus gave us $1 million to rehab the building to make it what will wind up being probably the most affordable housing units on the South Side—44 micro-apartments. The building is a partnership between us and The Kelley Cos., Michael Kelley, so we have an ownership stake in the building.

Our goal with it is threefold: No. 1, to provide community space where people can just come together and hang out. No. 2, to provide access to healthy food—we’re going to have prepackaged meals that will be reasonably priced. And then No. 3, and most importantly, we’re going to provide employment opportunities for people who have had difficulty entering or re-entering the workforce, whether it’s because they’re returning from prison or jail, or because they’ve been out of the workforce for a while, raising children, or something like that. Because we know that the biggest barrier to getting a job is having a job; no one wants to hire you when you’re unemployed.

The idea is, we’re going to hire folks part-time. They’ll work with us for six, maybe eight months, and then we will help them get full-time, career-track positions at other locations. We are working on building partnerships with larger employers; Nationwide Children’s Hospital has already committed to us that if we send them someone with our recommendation, they will get priority in the hiring process. They’re always looking for entry-level folks, full-time paying $15 an hour.

Is this the first multiunit affordable housing project CD4AP has gotten involved with?

It’s a mix. We do single-site, but we also do larger buildings as well. We’ve got, for example, Residences at Career Gateway, on Whittier about a half-mile east of Parsons, which is 50-some housing units combined with 2,500 square feet of job training space. We have Parsons Village I and II, which are senior housing units, over-55 affordable housing units farther down Parsons Avenue near the Reeb Avenue Center, and we have another project coming up in Merion Village called Jenkins Lofts; that’s probably going to be coming online in February.

This is CD4AP’s first foray into a café-style or restaurant-style space; why go that route instead of opening another fresh food market like some of your existing facilities?

Well, the market gives away food; the idea with the café is, we want something that will ultimately be sustainable, that will drive profits to fund itself.

We will pursue and we have pursued grant dollars: The Columbus Foundation is giving us about $55,000 for operations; Columbus City Council approved $75,000 for construction costs, and the city of Columbus is about to approve us for $35,000 for equipment costs. We’ve had some great success in identifying resources to help get us up and running, but the idea is, we would like it to be sustainable. Either fully sustainable or sustainable with some modest grant dollars as we go forward.

I think we have enough to get us up and running, and allow for some padding for our first few months of operations. And as we move forward, I expect other partners are going to present themselves.

Will food be prepared on-site, or will your partner Columbus State help out with that as well?

We actually have a commercial kitchen here at Community Development for All People, which we are working to get licensed as an official commercial kitchen. So the idea is, the food will be prepared here and transported down to the café on a daily or semi-daily basis.

We’re also planning to roast our own coffee. We’re very excited about that, because we will be able to say that it’s ethically sourced, fair-trade coffee that’s roasted in-house. And it’ll have our brand on it, as opposed to selling someone else’s brand. That also gives us the opportunity to hire additional staff, because the roasting operation, I expect, is going to be pretty constant. That’s going to dramatically expand our ability to market the café to other places and other partners.

Do you have any other partnerships with organizations in the works when it comes to placements for the staff after they’ve been at the café for a few months?

None that I’m able to mention just yet. But considering Nationwide Children’s is the largest employer on the South Side and they have about 15,000 employees, I would think the bulk of our folks are probably going to wind up going to Children’s. But we want to give folks options, too. As wonderful an organization as Nationwide Children’s is, somebody might not be interested in that, so we’re working on developing other partnerships, whether it’s larger employers or even some smaller employers. There’s a lot of employers that are going to be looking for reliable, trustworthy, competent staff, and this is a way to show these employers that these people can do that. And people who work for us at the café may go off and find a job of their own, somewhere else, to. They’re not limited to the options that we’ve uncovered. If they find a job that they’ve pursued on their own, we will give them a recommendation for that as well.

Do you foresee the labor crisis being a barrier to getting your facility staffed?

I do not, for three reasons. No. 1, we are going to pay $15 an hour, minimum. No. 2, we do have a trusted relationship with the community, so I think folks would be more inclined to come work for us than they would be to go work at, say, a fast-food chain. And No. 3, we are going to be working with populations that, quite frankly, are having difficulty getting jobs even at fast-food places because they’ve been out of the workforce for a while. So I think the combination of those three things is going to enable us to have a good crop of recruits. And once folks see the process up and running, I think that’s going to make it so that we’re never lacking for good candidates to hire.

What do you think the café will bring to the community that isn’t already available?

As far as pre-packaged, ready-to-go, healthy meals go, there really isn’t much, especially on Parsons Avenue, that is affordable for folks. That area, it’s pretty far south on Parsons; it’s just north of Route 104, so it’s about as far south on the South Side as you can go. There’s very little retail space down there. There’s no kind of café or coffee shop space, or community space, down there, so the idea is that this will provide employment opportunities, yes, but also healthy eating options.

It’s also important to know that in that part of town, that census tract directly west of Parsons, we and our partners control about one-third of the housing in that tract, so that is permanently going to be an affordable area to live as well. We want to make sure that as Parsons Avenue continues to develop—and we’ve seen some pretty amazing development already—but we want to make sure that there are opportunities for community space and also retail for people who are on a limited income. Affordable housing is only part of the equation; we want to make sure there’s access to affordable eating and living as well.