“Did y’all see my fanny pack?” Fathima Dickerson, one of the owners of Welton Street Café, reached below the cash register to show a group of satisfied customers her new, brightly-colored bag. “I wear all the freshest fanny packs.”
It’s 3 pm on a Saturday – a time most restaurants would know as the lull between lunch and dinner – but the café is anything but slow or quiet. In fact, Dickerson would eventually bust out a self-amplifying karaoke microphone to control the crowd, announcing that “If you walk in the kitchen looking for the bathroom, I will put you to work immediately. We are understaffed.”
The space feels well lived-in – a giant fiddle leaf fig tree is one of many plants thriving in the sunny dining room, decals on the walls bear inspirational quotes like “Believe there is good in the world,” and framed articles and awards make it clear that the café is certainly a Denver institution. Amidst the happy chatter and aromas of mac and cheese and fried catfish, you might not guess that Welton Street Café will be temporarily closing its doors in barely over a month.
It won’t be going far – just to a new, bigger space about three minutes’ walking distance down the same street – but the move comes during a tricky time. The restaurant industry is still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and, even though Welton Street Café will close in March, their new space won’t be ready until the summer.
“Nobody’s ready to move. Nobody really wants to,” Fathima said. “But our lease is up and so that’s where life is.”
Fathima’s parents, Flynn and Mona Dickerson, started the Welton Street Café in 1986 after moving to Denver from the Virgin Islands. The café has been at its current address in the historic Five Points Neighborhood since 1999. “Running a restaurant is a lot of work and so, for me, if I wanted to be around my parents I had to go to work,” Fathima said.
When Fathima was only about 5 or 6 years old, she started folding aprons and towels. When she was 7, she was tasked with making to-go cups of hot sauce. “And so now, when I do the hot sauce, people are like, wow, you could do that really fast. I’m like, I’ve been doing these cups for over 20 years,” she said.
Now, Fathima is one of the café’s five owners – including her parents and two of her eight siblings – and is undeniably the face of the business.
“It’s one of those things where they see me on the news and I make people hungry,” she said. “I’m like the ice cream man.”
And Fathima’s face has been on the news a lot recently with the big move on the horizon, specifically because the Dickerson family has turned to the same people who helped their business make it through COVID-19 to make it happen. “We survived on our customers,” Fathima said. “We had no pandemic relief. None.”
A GoFundMe page put up by Chereka Dickerson, Fathima’s sister, on January 1st has already reached a third of its fundraising goal, and the campaign’s title, Last Man Standing, is an allusion to how much the Five Points neighborhood has changed over the course of the café’s tenure.
One very measurable change can be seen in the neighborhood’s demographics. Due to redlining in the earlier half of the 1900s, Five Points became a thriving, predominantly Black neighborhood that was once known as the Harlem of the West due to its vibrant jazz scene.
Eventually, wealthier residents moved out of Five Points and into up-and-coming, integrated neighborhoods, making room for the telltale rent hikes and developments that have made Denver into one of the most gentrified cities in the United States.
Mona Dickerson, Fathima’s mother, worries about what moving might mean for the business that she created with her husband some 40 years ago. “She knows Five Points a whole different way,” Fathima said. “She’s like, the last thing I want is for us to just be like the rest of the businesses.”
So often, small legacy businesses like Welton Street Café are called victims of gentrification when they’re forced to relocate or close altogether. Fathima doesn’t see it that way, and instead strives to embrace her changing neighborhood and foster inclusivity between the old and the new. Spangalang Brewery, for example, hosted a hugely successful benefit night for the café in February – a testament to the connection the café has with its newer neighbors. Connection is exactly why Fathima has stayed in the family business.
“So we’re here — as a business, as a family — to make sure we’re serving our community, our people, and making sure that we have spaces where people in the black community can have a sense of culture and identity,” she said. “The code-switching game is real.”
Code-switching in the Black community typically refers to the practice of changing back and forth between African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and Standard American English (SAE) in different situations. A Black job candidate, for example, may most commonly use AAVE in their everyday life, but switch to SAE in their interviews. Fathima recognizes the draining psychological toll this takes on her community and uses her disarmingly authentic and warm demeanor to ensure that everyone can be their authentic selves when they come in for a meal.
“You know, why do I have to assimilate or conform to this way of the world that was really never really built for me?” she said. “I see a lot of, like, people who are in professional worlds. They walk in Welton Street Café, and they’re a different person. As soon as they hit the door they’re like, man. Thank you, what’s up, how you doin’? And I’m like, how you doin’?”
While the Dickersons are embracing the exciting possibilities that their bigger space will afford them – there’s been talk of a new bar and brunch menu – the move is bittersweet.
“My take on the situation is that life is about change, and we’re in a city that’s constantly growing and changing,” Fathima said. “Of course, this is like really moving out of my house that raised me.”
The Welton Street Café will continue to serve its signature soul food to the masses before it closes on March 12th. The café is set to reopen at its new location, 2883 Welton Street, sometime this summer.