Skip to main content

More Than a Latte: Momentum Coffee Tries to Contribute to Development in Underserved Neighborhoods

Daniel Hautzinger
Tracy Powell and Nikki Bravo pose for a photo in sweatshirts branded Momentum Coffee
“We want to be a catalyst for development in these neighborhoods that have been abandoned for over 60 years now,” says Momentum Coffee's Tracy Powell, pictured here with Nikki Bravo. Credit: Momentum Coffee

Get more recipes, food news, and stories by signing up for our Deep Dish newsletter.

When you think of an ideal neighborhood, a few things probably come to mind: a convenient grocery store, a peaceful park, a few stores and restaurants, maybe some workplaces. And how about a coffee shop? It can provide a place to work, to sit and chat with friends, to run into neighbors, to see a familiar face as you pick up a daily coffee or a special treat.

“A coffee shop is always good for development,” says Nikki Bravo, the owner of Momentum Coffee, which has six locations across Chicago, including in underserved neighborhoods such as Austin, North Lawndale, and Englewood. “We use coffee to create opportunities for communities, and we do that through jobs, through providing quality food and beverage options in under-resourced areas, and through creating spaces that are welcoming for people to come and convene.”

Bravo and her partner Tracy Powell initially conceived of Momentum as a co-working space, but then the pandemic came along and co-working vanished for a time. So they pivoted, and in May of 2020 the first Momentum Coffee opened in the South Loop, near Grand Boulevard, where Powell has lived for his entire adult life. “The intention is the same with co-working or not: it really is [about] creating spaces that are intentional,” says Bravo.

And they have been intentional in choosing where those spaces are located. After opening a spot in Millennium Park in November of 2021, they turned their attention to neighborhoods that lacked local coffee shops and other amenities; Englewood doesn’t even have a sit-down restaurant. Powell had spent a large portion of his career building affordable housing on the South and West Sides and wanted to try revitalizing disinvested communities through another form of development.

“We want to be a catalyst for development in these neighborhoods that have been abandoned for over 60 years now,” he says.

But a lone coffee shop can only do so much, so partnerships with other organizations have been essential for Momentum. In Englewood, Momentum is part of a commercial hub developed by the E.G. Woode collective. The coffee shop shares a rehabbed building with a barbershop, women’s clothing store, and the architectural offices of E.G. Woode’s leader Deon Lucas. E.G. Woode is also developing a food hub down the street, inching towards rebuilding a business corridor in Englewood.

The Millennium Park location of Momentum Coffee, below the Bean and a blue sky
Momentum's Millennium Park location helps provide visibility for the brand and support its other locations. Credit: Momentum Coffee

Momentum’s subsequent location is also part of a new development: North Lawndale’s Ogden Commons, which contains mixed-income apartments as well as a health care outpost and a bank branch. Such a development can have ripple effects across the neighborhood, as Liz Abunaw, who is opening an independent grocery store in Austin, has told WTTW.

“So much of your health is determined by your zip code, because housing is health. Jobs are health. Neighborhood walkability is health. Social cohesion is health,” Abunaw says.

Momentum’s Austin coffee shop is an example of an attempt to strengthen social cohesion: it’s part of the violence prevention and youth development organization BUILD Chicago’s new headquarters, across the street from a high school and near the Cicero Blue Line stop. 

“They really wanted [a partner] with intention,” says Bravo of BUILD. “Are you going to bring things that are quality? Are you going to hire from the community? It’s really a relationship around, ‘How do we impact our community in a positive way?’”

In addition to hiring from the neighborhood as much as possible, Momentum also offers training via an apprenticeship program. “The idea is hopefully that the seeds that we’re planting with our existing employees and future employees – that at some point these people are able to manage the stores and ultimately begin to own the stores,” says Powell.

Jasmine Teague is a 33-year-old apprentice at the South Loop location who discovered that she enjoyed working in coffee during a stint at Starbucks. She’s now a shift lead in charge of her co-workers at the shop and is learning all the aspects of  running a food business. “It offers me better advantages,” she says of the apprentice program – and also encourages her to “try to be a leader” for her co-workers. She wants to not only become a manager but also own her own business some day.

Powell and Bravo are lending their expertise to other potential entrepreneurs via a new food incubator program that is funded via the city. Seven people with food businesses either just launching or looking to expand attend weekly workshops on the important minutia of running a business – things like securing licenses and food safety – as well as receiving other guidance and mentorship. Depending on the business, they might eventually sell their product in Momentum stores, or partner with Momentum to provide catering. For instance, Momentum has a coffee cart at Garfield Park Conservatory and caters smaller events there. 

Operations like that and the shop at Millennium Park help provide awareness of the brand as well as support some of the other shops financially. It’s a long road to redevelop under-resourced areas, and food is a thin-margin business, but Bravo and Powell are happy to see small successes. Momentum recently hosted an event for an international coffee association, and Bravo was “blown away” by the level of engagement from her team with baristas from around the world. “Our folks understand that this is something bigger than me serving a latte,” she says.