For the last couple years, a sweet cafe along Fremont’s 36th Street has drawn loyal patrons to its plant- and light-filled space. Marked by colorful hammocks, upbeat tunes, welcoming vibes and delicious coffee, Café Con Todo has become a neighborhood staple for many.
This April, co-owners William Vassili and Inessa Lisunov should have been celebrating their venue’s second anniversary with the community. Instead, with doors shuttered for the foreseeable future, the couple was busy making coffee and pastry runs to local healthcare professionals.
“We hope to celebrate when we reopen,” Vassili said.
He talks about the initial shock that came with the realization they needed to put their business on “pause.” As some other cafes turned to takeout alternatives and the uncertainty of social distancing loomed, Vassili said they decided, for the safety of their baristas and customers, “It felt inherently dangerous [to stay open], considering everything that had transpired.”
In this period described as “very murky,” the pair turned their attention toward determining how they could help make a difference, while keeping their small business afloat at the same time. Vassilli credits partner Lisunov, who worked in healthcare herself, for coming up with the idea of their heartwarming food and drink program. Their minds turned to all the coffee they had that would go bad if unused; then, they had the “crazy idea” to connect with someone whose shop had closed and had a drip machine they could borrow. This was new for them, since Café Con Todo typically serves French press beverages.
They reached out to every local hospital they could think of, and tried to examine where gaps existed with food and drink needs. Coconut water, for example, seemed like a great source of hydration for staff working long, tireless hours; people can now add one bottle of Harmless Coconut Water - or a box of six - to their donation order. These days their deliveries also include drip coffee, cold brew, large batches of turmeric-based tea, Flying Apron gluten-free bars, and morning glory muffins from Macrina Bakery.
Thanks to their in-kind donation program, in the first week alone Café Con Todo donated more than 700 cups of coffee and tea to hospitals and nursing homes. They’ve committed to continuing deliveries twice a week for as long as they can during Washington’s stay-at home-order, to at least seven local emergency rooms. Some sites have them on weekly rotation, while other deliveries are done intermittently. In order to meet rigid safety protocols, Vassili and Lisunov personally prepare the orders and do the donation drop-offs themselves.
The couple’s second business, a dance studio called Salsa Con Todo (who we profiled last month), is attached to the cafe. In order to also keep that community as healthy and active as possible, they’ve begun offering virtual versions of progressive, curriculum-based dance classes. They've even switched to a payment system that means no student will be turned away for lack of funds. A drop-in class is offered every Friday at 6 p.m. via Zoom, and a weekly dance podcast happens on Facebook Live, too.
All of their staff (about 40 instructors) are teaching in some capacity. Vassili talked about the strong sense of community that is so ingrained in both worlds of which they’re a part - coffee and dancing. “We need to keep [these communities] alive and functioning in some way during this time,” he said. The dancers remain especially unsure how things will roll out in coming months, so they’re closely following what’s being decided for arena sports.
Everything factors right now in keeping a small business alive, Vassili explained - from the flexibility of one’s landlord to a “dream team” of staff that has been carefully crafted over time. Vassili added that when they do reopen the cafe, they look forward to carrying out different protocols and “good new standards” when it comes to considering sanitation practices. “A little part of the coffee shop puzzle has been solved,” he said.
Although these are undoubtedly uncertain and highly challenging times, Vassili sounds optimistic. “We look forward to reopening,” he said. And we know firsthand that anxious regulars also look forward to savoring a delicious hot drink - perhaps enjoyed under one of the bright cafe’s soaring skylights.
*If you are - or know of - an essential healthcare worker who needs nourishment, connect with the cafe and studio’s manager at (206) 234-3597 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Donations to Salsa Con Todo and Café Con Todo can be made via Venmo, Paypal (Salsatodo@gmail.com), and GoFundMe.