Live Cafe owner Reesheda Graham Washington says she's looking to pivot to a new business model premised more on memberships and curated experiences than coffee and food products. | Courtesy Paul Goyette

Since opening three years ago, Live Cafe, 163 S. Oak Park Ave., has garnered a reputation as a gathering space for community members throughout the west suburbs and the West Side, particularly those interested in the intersection of culture and justice. Now, a range of factors, including an influx of coffeehouse competitors, has prompted Live owner Reesheda Graham Washington to aggressively lean into the value that makes her business most unique. 

In January, Graham Washington convened the first meeting of a support and innovation team, which comprises some of the cafe’s most strident advocates, to discuss what might best be described as the business’ pivot to its original purpose amid a series of challenges. 

Last fall, when Fairgrounds Cafe opened at the corner of Lake and Euclid, it cut into Live’s market share in a local market that had already been saturated with coffee competitors. In addition, Live had lost some of its best gluten-free products after a supplier closed. 

Graham Washington said she saw the financial tempest as an opening to revisit Live’s transformational mission. The coffee and the products have always just been a way to cultivate relationships that have built the necessary trust to do the work of community building, she added. 

Earlier this year, buoyed by the ideas of her strong supporters, Graham Washington introduced a different business model — one based less on product sales (although the coffee and specialty drinks aren’t going anywhere, she said) than on investments by community members in what Live represents. 

Going into 2020, patrons should look for a simplified menu and a “membership community” that Graham Washington said will invite the community to “invest in itself” and own Live as a gathering space. There will be a range of individual and organizational memberships that will give members access to product discounts, access to events and other benefits. 

Live’s event offerings will also become more robust and more reflective of Graham Washington’s vision for Live, part of which is to be a space for other black women to grow as entrepreneurs, she said. 

Live’s Womenz Werk initiative, for instance, “is a community-based experience for Black Women in business. It is a space created for women, by women.  Through networking, support, promotion, and sharing of resources, Womenz Werk is strengthening the economic, spiritual, and mental power of black woman entrepreneurs,” according to Live’s website. 

Graham Washington said she also intends to leverage her work as an independent equity consultant to create curated experiences, such as a civil rights tour of the American South that would include young and old community members. 

“Our target niche has always been community transformation, equity and social entrepreneurship,” she said. 

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