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Meet the friends behind a new Harambee community cafe

three people stand together and smile in front of a dark gray storefront that says Kuumba Juice + coffee
Lina Tran
Alexander Hagler (left), Joe Ferch (middle), and Ellie Jackson (right) stand outside their cafe, Kuumba Juice and Coffee, before its opening, scheduled for January 2024.

In February, the community-oriented Kuumba cafe opened in Harambee. Kuumba Juice and Coffee, named for the sixth principle of Kwanzaa, is part of a growing hub of activity along the border between the Harambee and Riverwest neighborhoods. It’s housed in the Connector Building, on the Beerline Trail, where development aims to revitalize a rail corridor historically used by many Milwaukee’s breweries.

The founders are friends Alexander Hagler, Joe Ferch, and Ellie Jackson. They shared their plans with WUWM.

Listen to the conversation with the Kuumba cafe founders.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did we get here? How did y'all come together? 

Alexander Hagler: Kuumba Juice and Coffee, here in the Connector Building, is part of a larger project to help facilitate more activity around the Beerline Trail and Harambee in general.

How we all came together is many years in the making. Joe and I went to college together. We were in a fraternity together. Ellie and I used to live together. We met with the Victory Garden Initiative. We've all had our own narratives around art, wellness, music and entrepreneurship in this neighborhood.

In 2019, Joe and I started a wellness retail cafe and yoga studio space, over on Center and MLK. [It was] our way to try to create something bigger than ourselves. Something that our community needed to have, which is more space for wellness. Unfortunately, the pandemic put a kaput to that prematurely. But not too long after, we got the phone call from RiverWorks Development Corporation, and they asked if we were interested in operating a space here. We teamed up with Ellie and have been getting it going ever since.

Can you explain the name? How did that guide your vision for what you're trying to do here?

Hagler: Kuumba means creativity. Creativity that an individual possesses that they can use to make their community better than they inherited it. It's the sixth principle of Kwanzaa. Here in America, we talk about liberty, independence and freedom. African village values, such as the framework that Kwanzaa was built on, speaks more to community efforts, not just an individual effort. It realizes that the individual is really supported by a community and does great things because [of], and hopefully for, their community.

That's the guiding principle that we wanted to speak into this space. Especially as we're sitting here in Harambee, which is a predominantly Puerto Rican and Black neighborhood. Harambee itself is a Swahili term meaning “all pull together.”

Several years ago, I think it was a time in which a lot of people woke up to the idea that here in the Western world, we rely a bit too much on these values that don’t serve communities at large. It's just all individual benefit. Obviously, a coffee shop spurs creativity. It just seemed like a very fitting principle for a coffee shop, especially for the times that we live in right now.

the grey Kuumba cafe is on a corner of a busy street on a winter day
Lina Tran
Kuumba is housed in the Connector Building, on the growing Beerline Trail between the Harambee and Riverwest neighborhoods.

What can people expect from Kuumba when you open?

Joe Ferch: They can expect a lot of creative programming as it revolves around bringing the neighborhood together, programming out on the trail. We have a community center that can be used for different community events. What we want is really to bring the community together to kind of spur more development, economic growth, as well as just a closer, tight-knit community. Bringing in that word “Harambee,” all in one, all together, so that we can build a healthier, more active neighborhood.

Ellie Jackson: We'll have a full espresso bar. We have a machine plumbed in right now, which is a huge step. We'll also have fresh-pressed juices. And for starters, something like a grab-and-go menu with sandwiches, baked goods, with a more developed, more robust menu growing as our kitchen grows.

Every time I'm here, a handful of people pull over and ask us about what's going on with this space. This particular part of the neighborhood, while it is residential, it's also pretty industrial. There's different warehouse spaces here, auto body shops, lots of industrial businesses.

People have been saying they're excited to take their lunch break here or start their workday here. I've been talking to a lot of people, the last few weeks that we've been coming in here to set up, and it's really exciting. Everyone is like, “Just let us know when we can come in because we're ready to buy coffee!”

Kuumba Juice and Coffee is located at 274 E. Keefe Ave.

This post has been updated with the cafe's opening in February.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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