Cafe + Velo: When a Business and Neighborly Traditions Collide

I am video chatting with Kayleen Scott and Becka Cowan; Scott is sporting shocking yellow hair, and Cowan a wise, kind smile. Both women are fierce and have a lot to say regarding a recent incident at new Edgewood bike-friendly spot, Cafe + Velo. It takes us a while to get on track regarding the who, what, where, and when of the now infamous ejection of the pair’s guest, a homeless woman living on Edgewood named Alex that the two befriended months prior to their lunch date.

“I kept seeing her and I remember thinking, wow she’s really young,” says Scott. She was ready to help the young woman as soon as she learned her story, because at one point Scott herself was homeless. Now a working artist in the Atlanta area, Scott tries her best not to forget her time on the streets. What happened that day in April has sparked a conversation about what business owners should and shouldn’t do when it comes to policing homeless presence on their properties. Legal points aside, community concerns within the tight-knit neighborhood of Edgewood Avenue—an eclectic mix of young professionals, business owners, and local artists—have dominated the discussion. For the sake of fairness though, it’s important to understand exactly what happened before delving into that aspect of this story.

Becka and Kayleen were sitting at Cafe+Velo when the former spotted Scott’s friend Alex, a homeless Black woman in her early 30’s. The two got excited because they finally had a new chance to catch up with her and to see how she was doing.

“We decided to get her a hot meal, and out of convenience we went into Cafe + Velo,” says Cowan.

A long-time Edgewood resident, she was actually a professed and vocal supporter of Velo, having posted about the eatery on her own social media accounts. She was excited to finally have a place that was dog friendly and had a street-facing patio. The pair tell me that when they entered and purchased a sandwich for their friend Alex, the owner Jeff Demetriou, asked them if they wanted the food to go. According to the pair, then demanded that they take the food outside of the restaurant so as not to disrupt the other customers around them with the presence of a homeless person. Following this, Cowan took to social media and relayed the incident to her friends and followers. What happened next was nothing short of a PR master class in what not to do when faced with controversy.

As opposed to appearing contrite or requesting that the women have a private meeting with him, Demetriou decided to publicly post the internal policies of his business and go toe-to-toe with Cowan. It wasn’t pretty. The controversy proved so explosive that local news stations saw fit to cover it, with 11Alive producing a prime-time segment detailing the incident and resulting fall-out.

WUSSY reached out to Demetriou, hoping to provide him an opportunity to explain his side of the controversy and where he stands as a business owner. We did this bearing in mind that social media isn’t always the most accurate depiction of a person’s intention and character. His response is below:

“Last Monday, I noticed a lady at her own table by the gate to our patio speaking with two other customers at a different table who had ordered about 30 minutes prior. The lady at the table was previously known to me, as she has frequently solicited customers both inside and outside of the cafe. Upon observing the above, Kayleen (the person with whom I spoke) came to order a sandwhich and an OJ. Since she had already eaten, and thinking that this lady was again soliciting customers, I asked if this was for her or the lady outside. She told me it was for the lady outside. I then politely told her that we would prefer for those types of transactions to occur outside of the cafe, as we did not want to encourage solicitation of our customers. She then said that she knew her and she was a friend that she buys food for her when she sees her. I simply requested again that we would prefer those types of exchanges to occur outside the cafe, and asked if she didn’t mind getting it to-go for the lady, as we didn’t want to encourage her to continue to solicit future customers. One of my employees delivered the sandwich to Kayleen outside to the table that her and her friend Becka (who had been outside the entire time), were still sitting at by themselves. They then apparently proceeded to leave. There was never any interaction between myself or the lady on the porch. No one was told to leave, refused service. or that they (or anyone else) was unwelcome. Race had absolutely nothing to do with this, as we discourage solicitation of our customers by anyone regardless of race, class, or gender.”

The receipts of Demetriou’s comments and internal policy have been saved, and shared throughout the Edgewood community; they were also included in the 11 alive segment.  

In one comment, Demetriou details his cafe’s “zero-tolerance” homeless policy, he then continues to explain that his reasoning lies in the tendency of the homeless to take advantage of people’s compassion:

 

There is a lot to unpack here, and typically I wouldn’t shy away from voicing my own opinion on the matter, but I think it’s more effective to focus on the implications of the broader discussion prompted by this incident.

There are two sides to this situation. Demetriou’s clumsy behavior aside, there is a lot to be said regarding a business’s obligation to the neighborhood it occupies. Cowan assured me that Edgewood has always been a homeless-friendly area, that local businesses tend to co-exist with the already heavy homeless population of that strip. I reached out to long-time Edgewood entrepreneur and occasional WUSSY contributor Grant Henry (Sister Louisa’s Church of the Living Room and Ping Pong Emporium and its spin-offs)  to glean more insight into the common practice of businesses along one of Atlanta’s most popular nightlife strips. In his response, Henry agreed that businesses have co-existed with the homeless, and he goes further to describe how he’d like to see that relationship grow in the near future; he did not comment on the specifics regarding the controversy surrounding Cafe + Velo:

“I would say businesses have co-existed (I once bought one of the street musicians a new harmonica when he lost his) pretty much. However, I think that the city, business community, residents, and the faith communities could join hands with the people who are homeless and figure out how to help all parties evolve towards some growth in the resolution of the problem. It's a toughie.”  

Grant Henry is right, it certainly is a toughie. Considering Demetriou opened up shop in a neighborhood with a long-standing history of co-existing with the homeless, the complexity of marrying his own business strategy to the demands of locals now presents a glaring problem for his business’s future. How he decides to move forward is up in the air. Hopefully, he chooses not to let us know via social media because I’m sure at this point, both the residents of Edgewood and Cafe + Velo’s employees could use a well-deserved breather. Perhaps even, one that takes place on a street-facing patio that is also dog friendly?

Zaida J. is currently the Associate Editor here at WUSSY and a self-described transgender loud mouth.