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The Third Way of Looking at a Pandemic

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Social Enterprise, Third Way Café, gets creative during COVID-19

As a long-time Westside resident, John Rush noticed the Hilltop neighborhood wasn’t getting the same development and rehabilitation that was prevalent in much of Columbus. There was really no anchor space for people in the community to hold meetings or gather with friends. He decided to change that by opening Third Way Café in December of 2017.

John’s son, Tim, pitched in to help and completely fell in love with the business. He would help while finishing his degree at The Ohio State University and then become the general manager after graduation, handling operations of the café. Two things were important to John when opening the café: Be a safe and open community-driven space and provide second chance employment for those who have been incarcerated to integrate back into society.

With this philosophy of neighborly discourse at its heart, the coffee shop was intended to serve the community as more than just a place to grab a cup of coffee. It was created to be a meeting and gathering space that could foster a sense of community. Third Way Cafe would offer its neighborhood an important component that it was currently missing, thereby giving something back to the local people who would patronize it.

“Maybe we can understand one another and come to a third way of looking at things”

Why the name Third Way? "We want to create a safe space to share opinions and encourage neighborly discourse, in a time when folks' opinions can be very polarized," says John. "There’s your way of looking at things, and there’s my way – but if I can learn a little more about your way of looking at it, maybe we can understand one another and come to a third way of looking at things that can perhaps be a little more helpful to current issues in society."

When entering the café, you might see a live poetry reading, be served coffee by a second chance-employed barista, see art displayed from the gallery next door or find a local food truck parked outside. Third Way Café has been ranked highly on local top 10 lists and even got a shout out from the New York Times because of their involvement in a Prison Barista Training program that teaches inmates barista skills while incarcerated. Plans to expand the successful shop to Columbus’ South Side neighborhood were in motion.

Then COVID hit.

"We shifted to wondering how we might even just stay open," said John. The café wasn’t able to host events, couldn't safely let their community have a place to meet and wouldn't be able to support their staff. Navigating a new business through a pandemic that no one was prepared for was keeping Tim up at night. So, he did what he always does when he has a business-related question and asked his dad what he would do. John suggested they contact ECDI. "I worked with ECDI in the past to purchase equipment for our commercial cleaning company, Clean Turn and had a great experience,” John said. “I knew they would help us again." He had recently gotten an email from ECDI offering help financially or technically due to the Coronavirus shutdowns, so the organization was top of mind. “We picked up the phone and made the call. Within no time, we had approval for a loan.”

Tim and John Rush

With help from the CARES Act loan from ECDI, Third Way Café was able to stay open and even make some updates to their space. "Since no one was allowed in the café, we decided now was actually a perfect time to renovate," said Tim. "In a best-case scenario, renovations last a month. Typically, they take longer. The loan helped make that happen, but even more, it took away the financial stress. Instead of worrying about making payroll, we can focus on creative ways of making money." Instead of hosting public events, they've transitioned to recording performances and talks in the café and streaming them on Zoom. The café is still able to bring the community together, even if it's only virtually. Third Way Café was able to function as a carry-out only model, while updating their space and was still able to make do. According to Tim, "Our customers missed their daily routines of getting coffee on their way to the office. We have a lot of regulars still coming in every day to keep that part of their routine in their lives."

What's next for Third Way Café? "We just opened a coffee cart at the All People Arts Gallery on the south side," says Tim. This is the first of hopefully several expansions. They plan on opening more cafés in similar communities with the same principals as the flagship location: Focus on the community and be a space where people from different backgrounds can come together, discover more about each other and find a third way to look at the world.

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