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Debts shutter downtown Colorado Springs community cafe

August 7, 2017 Updated: August 8, 2017 at 6:17 am
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Business goes on, despite a shakeup at Seeds Community Cafe. A customer waits for his meal at Seeds Community Cafe on Thursday, June 15, 2017. . (Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette)

Seeds Community Café closed Sunday, attributing its demise to "past financial decisions coupled with a lack of donations and customer traffic," according to a news release from the nonprofit pay-as-go eatery in downtown Colorado Springs

The shutdown comes more than eight months after founder Lyn Harwell resigned as executive director in the wake of board members discovering the operation was more than $100,000 in debt. While Seeds was able to pay off more than half of the debt, board members learned of another $10,000-$15,000 in debts to more vendors in the last two months, said Gene Tanski, the board's president.

"Collectively, we are heartbroken," Tanski said Monday. "We believe hunger and food insecurity are still a problem in Colorado Springs, and while we believe we had an answer, we hope that someone else will pick up the issue."

Harwell, a chef, volunteer and community activist, opened Seeds in 2013 using a pay-what-you-can concept developed by local nonprofit One World Everybody Eats Foundation. Customers were not asked to pay for meals, but rather make a donation to cover the cost plus an additional amount for others who couldn't afford to pay.

"I am heartbroken over Seeds' closing. I did not know they were struggling financially and wish they had reached out to their supporters for help," Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Jill Gaebler said Monday. "So many of us have invested in Seeds and know its value in our community toward promoting a healthy food system and helping so many of our low-income community members to eat more healthily. I hope they find a way to reorganize and start anew. I am willing to help them in any way possible."

Tanski said Seeds paid $40,000-$50,000 in delinquent local, state and federal taxes, including sales, unemployment insurance and withholding taxes. He said Loni Woodley, a partner in a local accounting and consulting firm, is developing plans to repay the $40,000-$60,000 in debts to vendors and other creditors with a goal to make those payments by the end of the month. Seeds owns a food truck and restaurant equipment that will be sold and has unspent funds from two grants totaling about $50,000, though the grant is restricted to help Seeds expand into catering and operate its food truck, "The Local."

Seeds had hoped to use the catering operation and the food truck to provide enough income to keep the café going, but "we couldn't grow them fast enough to provide the cash flow to offset the café's losses. With no other significant grants on the horizon, we didn't want to go further into debt," Tanski said. Seeds also operated the café at the El Paso County Courthouse between August and November 2016, but shuttered the operation after determining it couldn't make a profit, he said.

Harwell said he was disappointed by Seeds’ closure.

“Seeds has been changing lives for years,” he said. "It has had a positive impact on so many lives and created so many success stories. That is the real legacy of Seeds.”

Harwell said he had not been involved in the finances of the cafe since November, when he resigned as executive director. He continued to write grant requests until leaving the nonprofit in April. He said board members had been aware of Seeds’ debts since at least January 2016.


Seeds’ “financial situation has been difficult since we opened. It has been known and dealt with since the beginning,” he said.”We did this together. There wasn’t anything the board didn’t know about.”

Seeds board members tentatively voted Tuesday to shut down the café on Friday, a decision that finalized on Sunday, Tanski said. Seeds executive director Jennifer Bostick will spend the rest of the month winding down the nonprofit and working with catering customers to find alternative providers for their events, he said. Seeds had five employees when it closed; the nonprofit was mostly operated by volunteers. The nonprofit plans to turn over the building by the end of August to landlord Chuck Murphy, a longtime local contractor with other business interests in real estate and transportation.

"This is one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make," Bostick said in the release. "We have had such a great relationship with the local community, businesses, food growers and producers. Everyone involved with Seeds is dedicated to reducing food insecurity around the world and we believe the best way to impact that is through locally grown initiatives. Our customers, volunteers and donors have truly transformed numerous lives since the inception of Seeds."

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Contact Wayne Heilman: 636-0234

Twitter @wayneheilman

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