After successfully navigating COVID’s challenges, Rivers and Roads Coffee is expanding to a second location, at 2960 Champa Street in Curtis Park. The new, smaller outpost will focus on quick-grab items for commuters and community members, and is expected to open by early summer. It will also include space for artisans to sell their wares. The specifics are still in the works, but cafe owners Michael and Desiree Keen anticipate partnering with a refugee or job-creation organization to sell what Michael calls “cottage-style industry” items, like art, soap, jewelry and crafts.
The Keens opened Rivers and Roads at 2539 East Bruce Randolph Avenue, in the Clayton neighborhood, in 2017. Michael, who had owned a coffee shop (Studio 6 turned MMM … Coffee, which is now closed) in the Art District on Santa Fe for eight years, missed the bustle of working in a cafe. Desiree, a former cosmetologist and teacher, was getting back into work after a three-year hiatus. She had been diagnosed with Lyme disease, was in and out of the hospital and spent some months in a wheelchair. After her recovery, the Keens decided they wanted to open a community center in their neighborhood, and a cafe just made sense.
Rivers and Roads operates on the motto “Love above all else.” When the Keens ask themselves what it looks like to live that mission actively, they say that they look to community and their staff. From the time the cafe opened, it hosted monthly family dinners, typically feeding eighty to ninety friends and community members for free while donations were collected for charity. “This is how we tangibly pursue this mission,” says Desiree.
The Keens also provide employee benefits that promote work-life balance. Full-time employees receive health benefits, completely covered by Rivers and Roads; work a four-day full-time work week; and get a paid week off during the holidays. “We really believe in our team, and we want to take care of them,” Michael notes.
The cafe’s menu is inspired by Desiree’s former diet restrictions. Ingredients are sourced locally whenever possible, and all items are gluten-free – but Rivers and Roads does not advertise itself as a gluten-free cafe. “Hopefully people do not even know,” Desiree says. Instead, the Keens want the cafe to be an inclusive space without the label.
Rivers and Roads has weathered COVID better than most. It was able to stay in operation, and while it was in no way easy (there were some eighty-hour weeks and plenty of panic), the cafe was able to maintain a steady business. “We were protected in ways I did not know,” Michael explains.
When they ran out of masks for employees, a customer dropped off a box. Another customer – a lawyer – helped them navigate the ever-shifting COVID restrictions. Others kept the cafe as a budget item in their weekly spending to ensure the business stayed afloat. The cafe also received a PPP loan to support employees, and the Keens took out a business loan, though they ended up not needing the funds and were able to pay it back.
COVID did, though, inevitably end the community-gathering part of their mission. The to-go model was “the opposite of what we do,” says Michael. “We want people to hang out, but we had to plan on how to get people out of here faster.” And the monthly family dinners had to be canceled.
But the Keens say COVID also gave them the opportunity to reassess their mission and work. They improved processes, rearranged the kitchen, and heightened wellness care for staff.
Customers are back in the dining area at Rivers and Roads, but it does not have plans for restarting the family dinners yet. “It feels too soon,” Desiree says. “We miss it, but we live in a different world now.”
The Keens bought and have renovated a Rivers and Roads food truck, which they thought might be used to reinvent the monthly dinners, but that project has been paused as preparations are made for the second location.
The Curtis Park building that Rivers and Roads will move into this summer sparked a gentrification conversation in 2020. Black stripes were painted over a mural of a white woman sipping coffee, which building owners Jessica Ralston and Reuben Zacharakis-Jutz had commissioned for the wall – the two originally planned to open their own coffee shop there. The black stripes were added as a protest against the mural, whose subject was viewed as a symbol of gentrification. In response, Ralston, Zacharakis-Jutz and members of the community came together to discuss the neighborhood’s shifting demographics and new businesses.
Although those conversations were two years ago, and a mural of Billie Holiday now graces the wall, gentrification is still a sensitive issue for Curtis Park. But the Keens, who are Colorado natives, feel prepared. When Rivers and Roads opened in 2017, Clayton was – and is still – a community facing gentrification. But the cafe has thrived, and the Keens hope their community focus on “Love above all else” will only grow as they move into Curtis Park.