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Change-trepreneurs: Three under 30 work on cafe, social entrepreneurship in St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2009 - At first, there was just a brick storefront, the wood of the windows and doors painted pale and bright yellow, with a sign leaning against the door that read "Urban Studio Cafe."

And at first, there were intentions, plans and hopes that a cafe could open in a part of St. Louis that's often forgotten, and create jobs, and give the community a place to gather and the organizers a place to offer community programs.

Now, there's coffee dripping into the pot. There's hummus, cucumber and tomato slathered on a pretzel roll. And daily neighbors come in with their papers, spending time together, just like Phil Valko and Claire Wolff and Liz Buerger envisioned.

The Urban Studio Cafe, 2815 N. 14th St., opened on Aug. 29, and held it's grand opening on Thursday, Sept. 17.

Last May, when the Beacon first told the story of the cafe, in Old North St. Louis, Wolff, Valko and Buerger had just won $30,000 in the Skandalaris Center's Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition at Washington University.

And their goal wasn't to serve coffee, really, but to have a nonprofit cafe that could be a social entrepreneurship enterprise.

Some of their other goals:

  • to generate profits that would provide funding for arts programs;
  • to create jobs and job-skills training;
  • to offer the community a place to come together;
  • to be a catalyst for the revitalization of Old North; and to model social entrepreneurship.

In their business plan, the group figured they'd need $50,000 to get up and running. After the $30,000 from Skandalaris, they were able to raise more but are still about $11,000 short.
Wolff is hoping the grand opening will help the larger community see what the cafe has to offer, which so far has been four jobs for community members, including two teenagers who work on the weekends, and a place for people to meet, which happens every day.

At the grand opening, Wolff says they'll unveil their programming, including educational programs and the arts.

Both she and Valko still work with the cafe, but Buerger has moved on to Boston.

Right now, business is slow during the week, about 20 people a day, but weekends are pretty busy.

"It's amazing," says Wolff, who's now the cafe manager. "It's been hard for me to sit back and soak it all in because I feel like there's always something else to do."

Read the Beacon's earlier story below:

Phil Valko can see Old North St. Louis through most people' eyes.

They find boarded windows, empty lots, few businesses. But there's something else, too. Something that people get at when they talk about Old North.

"I think the perception is - danger, don't go there, you will die," Valko says.

But Valko went there. And he didn't die. Instead, he's found opportunity in blight, seen possibility in a beat down and shuttered community, and decided it's exactly the kind of place people will want to come for a cup of coffee.

Well, sort of. It will be that kind of place. People will see the patchwork of people here, businesses will see that they can make it here, the community can expand their horizons, too.

All of this, he hopes, will grow out of a 600-square-foot cafe he and two other friends are starting as a social enterprise in North St. Louis.

Valko, Claire Wolff and Liz Buerger are not in this to be the next generation of millionaires. Valko, 29, has a full-time job. Wolff, 23, is a grad student and Buerger, 23, waitresses at night so she can work on their plans during the day.

But that's not slowing them down. The Urban Studio Cafe recently won $30,000 in Washington University's Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation Competition.

Their vision is becoming real, though they still have to convince others to see what they do in Old North.

"People need to understand that the neighborhood just isn't what they think it is anymore," Buerger says.

But change, like good coffee, isn't instant.


Valko is a big idea guy -- the kind of guy who sees blight as a blank canvas.

After graduating from Wash U, he moved away, but eventually came back.

"The same things that scare a lot of people away were the things that really attracted me to St. Louis," he says.

Valko, a Chicago native, got a job with Trailnet, a non-profit that promotes active living. He looked for neighborhoods to live in, riding his bike to discover communities. He found there was more than people knew to Old North, and at 24, moved into the neighborhood.

His first project was holding music classes for kids. The experience sparked something for the drummer. And it also bugged him. He could teach music after school all he wanted, but these kids had no place to go, no opportunities to play again. They needed something more permanent.

The idea for Urban Studio began.

Valko rented the studio's space from the Karandzieff brothers, who own Crown Candy. When they first met, Valko told Andy Karandzieff that he wanted to work with inner-city kids.

"I'm kind of a realist, maybe a touch of a pessimist," Karandzieff says. "So, when Phil told me what he wanted to do, I'm like, good luck with that."

In 2005, Urban Studio started working on a project by project basis, focusing on after-school activities, art projects and bike rides. They soon began operating as a partner with Grace Hill, and for about a year and a half, Valko paid the $300 a month rent for the space out of his own pocket

Then, through mutual friends, Valko met Wolff, an undergrad at Wash U.

The two realized they had the same goals and started working together for Old North. And, they found, in casual discussions, in surveys, whenever asked, the neighborhood always had one thing at the top of the list of what was needed -- a cafe.


From the very early days of her life in St. Louis, Wolff got out of the Wash U bubble and saw the city.

And when the North Carolina native met up with Valko and began working with Urban Studio, she found more and more ways to stay out of that bubble.

In the winter of 2007, Wolff applied for a social change grant through Wash U and Kaldi's and won $5,000 for the idea of starting a cafe as a social enterprise. Soon, she and Valko were making real plans for Urban Studio Cafe.


The idea was to create a community space where people could get together, a place that created jobs, provided financial literacy, a place that showed other businesses that they could make it here, and a place that would generate money for arts programs.

Forty-two teams entered the SCIC competition. Urban Studio was one of the final five.

All the time, Wolff knew the project was what the community wanted, but some of the judges at SCIC weren't so sure. So in March, they had to prove it.

They organized a get together, inviting locals to stop by and have their photo taken with a homemade sign.

It read: "I live in Old North and I love coffee."

More than 40 people came that day, Valko says.

Now, Wolff is weeks away from graduating with her master's in social work. She's looking for a new place in several neighborhoods, including Old North. And when the Urban Studio Cafe opens, she'll be the cafe manager.

It's not exactly where she thought her degree would take her, but exactly where she wants to be.


Most nights of the week, Buerger arrives at work in all black. She brings water, takes orders. And often, diners at Liluma ask her a little about herself.

She's from just outside New York City, she'll tell them, a recent graduate of Wash U.

So why are you waitressing, they'll ask?

And that's where the story gets good, because basically, Buerger is waitressing to support her volunteering habit.

When the cafe idea was forming, she was graduating and thinking about what to do next. The idea of being involved with a social enterprise at 23 was pretty thrilling.

"It was just this really new and unique way of looking at a problem and approaching it from all the different angles," she says.

Now, as the cafe gets closer to opening, Buerger's working on the details of a tutoring and after school program in the space.

Originally, Buerger thought she'd leave before the summer began, but she's extending that now until August. And while she can't live forever on tips, if the cafe is a success and a job there a possibility, "I could easily see myself staying."


Urban Studio Cafe isn't there, yet. But they're close.

They made it through the various stages of SCIC. They formed an advisory board, including Kaldi's co-owner Harold Lerner. They developed a business plan that runs them five years out. Five teams won seed money in the competition. Urban Studio Cafe won $30,000. They were hoping for $50,000.

Now, the goal is to find funders, make connections and get more people to believe in their vision of Old North. For the most part, since they've been working toward the cafe, the doors of Urban Studio have been closed. That bugs Valko.

"It's the steps that lead up to it that are critical, yet not fun, that we've sort of been entrenched in for so many months," he says.

They're working now to offer individual development accounts, or IDAs, matching savings programs, for employees, and eventually for the larger community. Urban Studio Cafe is working with Justine Peterson, a St. Louis organization that promotes financial literacy.

By July, Valko hopes, the cafe will open.

"It will be the first new restaurant business in the neighborhood in probably -- I can't remember," Karandzieff says.

"In Old North St. Louis, there's not a lot to hang our hats on," he says. "We get beat down a lot."

And there have been some people in the neighborhood who've been skeptical about the cafe, he says.

"I think a lot of people are skeptical about a lot of things in this neighborhood," agrees Sean Thomas, executive director of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. "They've just had so many promises and programs and ideas that haven't gone anywhere."

But, like with the 14th street redevelopment, he says, once they see it is going somewhere, they'll support it.

And even now, when the doors are shut, the coffee not yet percolating, there's growing excitement, Karandzieff says, for something that's beginning to look more and more like it will happen.

That support will be essential.

While Valko, Wolff and Buerger believe in what they've found in the community and have worked hard to create something there, they can't sustain the place or their vision of Old North on their own.

And they may not have to.

The day after they won the SCIC competition, Wolff stopped by the cafe's space and found a homemade card slipped under the door.

Congratulations, it said. Looking forward to coffee. Love, the neighbors.