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Late in the afternoon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Welton Street Cafe didn’t feel like a place that had barely survived the throes of the pandemic. It was bustling.
A quick scan of Five Points’ beloved soul food restaurant revealed a young, bearded white man seated near the plate-glass window facing the Welton Street corridor, where the light rail runs. A quartet of smartly coiffed Black women sat in a booth along the restaurant’s sunny yellow wall, laughing and passing a smartphone among them. Later, a racially diverse foursome of businessmen claimed an adjacent booth. Those gathered in the 36-year-old cafe that day reflected the nuances of the ongoing demographic shifts in the historically Black neighborhood and epitomized how Welton Street Cafe has long been committed to being a community hub, stout in its Blackness yet welcoming to all.
That warm hospitality is what Mona and Flynn Dickerson envisioned in 1986 when they opened the restaurant and subsequently moved it to its current location at 2736 Welton Street in 1999. Over the past decade, four of their six children—Cenya, Chereka, Fathim, and Fathima—have continued that legacy of beckoning anyone and everyone into their space.
Jameka Lewis remembers well the greeting she received from Fathima after arriving in Denver five years ago for her job as a steward of Black history at the nearby Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library. “I grabbed some lunch. I was another transplant that people always complain about disrupting the continuum,” Lewis says. “Fathima was the first community person I met who really embraced me. She never cared about [me being a transplant]. She was just like, ‘Hey, sis, welcome.’ ”
It’s interactions like the one Lewis encountered that those connected to Five Points were worried about losing when Welton Street Cafe looked like it wouldn’t survive the challenges of 2020 and 2021. In addition to making its way through the pandemic (without any relief funds), the restaurant needed to upgrade an ailing HVAC system—one of the costly repairs that had been neglected over time by the property’s previous owners.
For many, the fear over the possible shuttering of the cafe wasn’t just about the deprivation of a friendly “hello” and a plate of fried catfish; it was about the casualty of another Black-owned business in a neighborhood that, at one time, embodied its moniker as the Harlem of the West. “For us as Black folks, our places and spaces are more than just brick and mortar. And our places and spaces aren’t as easily replaced as other places are,” Lewis says. “Welton Street has had hundreds of thousands of visitors, has catered to people of every single status you can imagine, of all ethnicities. But it’s still super crucial and essential to Blackness in Denver. We have to think outside of it just being a restaurant.”
The Dickersons understand what their cafe means to the community. Despite the cost of rent and the challenges of securing small-business financing, they announced in November their intention to relocate the eatery to a new, larger home a block north on Welton when their lease is up at the end of March. But given the hurdles erected by the pandemic, an overheated real estate market, and the continued gentrification of Denver’s communities of color, the success of the move is anything but guaranteed.
Talk of Welton Street Cafe among Denverites often centers on its place in the city’s Southern food firmament, but the menu is just as rooted in fare from the West Indies. This comes as no surprise to those who have taken the time to sample beyond the wings, whiting, and red beans and rice. The pate (pronounced pah-tay), a fried pastry that can be filled with chicken, seafood, or broccoli and cheese, and the well-seasoned jerk chicken speak to the Dickerson family’s own vital migration from one home to the next.
In the 1970s, Flynn and Mona moved from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Colorado Springs, where Flynn’s oldest brother lived. But the couple didn’t like the speed of the state’s second-largest city, says Fathima, who was raised in the Whittier neighborhood after her parents moved to Denver and opened a restaurant, originally called the Caribbean, in Five Points. Through the years, the name changed to Mona’s Wings and Tings and eventually to Welton Street Cafe, but one thing remained the same, at least in the early years. The eatery was located amid a strip of Black-owned businesses that suggested a community: barber and beauty shops, a dry cleaner, Minerva’s Hat Shop, Joe’s Shoe Repair. Most of those places closed years ago—many between the mid-1990s and early 2000s—but the cafe has endured. “The first thing [my parents] did was offer beef pate and a Coke for a dollar,” says Chereka, noting that it was an inviting price for a dish few Black folks in Denver were familiar with.
Over the years, the restaurant has fulfilled a hankering for Southern-inflected soul food, but it has also catered to a deeper hunger, a cultural nostalgia. Welton Street Cafe lives in present-day Denver, but just as the taste of pates connects the Dickersons to their island home, the aroma of fried chicken connects many of the cafe’s devoted patrons—including soul food scholar and Denver native Adrian Miller, who has championed the restaurant for more than 15 years—to their pasts.
“Welton Street Cafe serves soul food staples like fried chicken, black-eyed peas, and greens that give a taste of home to Blacks who moved to Denver from the South during the Great Migration,” Miller says. “Those same dishes remind us of a parent, grandparent, or caregiver who made a point of connecting us to our Southern roots.”
On that same Saturday afternoon in November, Fathima surveyed the restaurant from her perch at the register, a lifeguard making sure patrons and staff alike were having a smooth experience. Fathima has also stood watch over and served as the public face of the family business as it plans for the coming move, tentatively scheduled for late spring.
Each Monday, the Dickersons meet with the Holleran Group—a community-driven development firm working with the family on the project—to discuss the financing, marketing, and logistics of the relocation. While they were thrilled to see floor plans from local architecture firm Desibl in December, putting the necessary funding together has been a challenge. Estimates for the project hover around $1 million for the building’s renovation, furnishings, fixtures, and other equipment. “You just got to find lenders who will support your vision and support the history,” Fathima says. “You’re getting denied for not making enough or making too much or not having the right percentage of loss. Eligibility for a business loan or a grant or pandemic relief has been tricky. It has not been easy.”
As of early January, financing still hadn’t been secured. But Fathima, who earned a master’s degree in social sciences from the University of Colorado Denver in December, knows uncertainty is the only certainty in running a small business. She wants the cafe to have enough in its bank account to ensure success—with a little assist from other Coloradans. When Denver7 reported on the restaurant’s HVAC woes for the station’s Gives program last spring, viewers donated more than $41,000 to cover the repair costs. The success of the fundraiser inspired the cafe to launch its own GoFundMe crowd-sourcing initiative in January to help with initial build-out expenses.
Financial concerns aside, they’re excited about the promise of 2883 Welton Street. At more than 3,000 square feet, the new space will have a larger, more modern kitchen and an expansive dining room, where Fathima envisions hosting more community gatherings. The family is still plotting what those will entail, but the same food and affability are a given. “We are here for family,” Fathima says. “We are here for community. That is the highlight of how this legacy will sustain itself. This is why we’re here.”