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Members Wanted

Members Wanted

J.R. McMillan

We often see “neighborhood” and “community” used synonymously, even though they’re not. The former is just a place, but the latter has a purpose. A neighborhood is where you live, but a community is where you belong.

That subtle understanding was the spark that started two innovative enterprises both hoping to find common ground despite the confusion by using membership as a means to create social change.

Third Way Café

3058 W Broad St.

Third Way is the clever concept that could finally tamp down tensions on the far west side after years of yearning for something more than commodity coffee served by places that mostly sell burgers and fries or gas and scratch-offs.

“It’s not just a coffee shop, or a bookstore, or a community space. It’s a place where we encourage people to listen, to think, to engage in conversation,” explained John Rush, founder of the fledgling business already generating a lot of local buzz.

Located on the corner of West Broad Street and Westmoor Avenue, Third Way Café is directly across from Westgate, a neighborhood that has been thirsty for a coffee shop for as long as anyone can remember. The informal open house in December squeezed more than 400 supporters into the surprising spacious spot adjacent to Westgate BusinessWorks, a shared retail strip for small businesses featuring antiques, artwork, consignments, and seasonal shops.

“Our membership model is simple. There’s a $2 cover charge per visit for coffee, and you can stay as long as you’d like. For $20 a month, that’s unlimited,” Rush revealed. “Annual memberships for $200 include admission to all of our events as well.”

Those additional events currently include game nights, live music, poetry readings, and “Penny University”—with invited speakers discussing topics ranging from social justice and incarceration to the role performing arts play in creating community.

“Penny University will be very diverse, facilitating dialogue on issues important to the west side, and issues relevant in our broader culture,” he said. “We don’t just want to serve the immediate neighborhood. We want to bring in patrons and programs from around Columbus.”

Rush is already a seasoned, serial, social entrepreneur. His earlier efforts include Clean Turn Demolitions and She Has a Name cleaning service, offering employment opportunities to those who struggle to find steady work due to generational poverty or criminal backgrounds, and victims of human trafficking. Third Way Café is an extension of that shared mission, to build empathy and understanding by creating a place that connects people with coffee as a catalyst.

“All of our coffee is from local roasters, and all of our baked items are local as well,” he noted. “The artwork, the records, the books are all for sale too.”

In fact, if it’s not nailed down, it’s probably for sale. Furniture Bank of Central Ohio will supply some of the seating and tables, which patrons may also purchase. Area artists and photographers will offer a rotating backdrop for the walls. Even the mugs are hand-thrown by a neighbor and fired in her basement kiln. Vinyl records, old school video games, and classic literature line the walls. From Don McLean to Don Juan, Atari to Dostoyevsky, Third Way aims to create a comfortable corner to kick back, contemplate, or simply enjoy a bottomless cup that supports a worthy cause.

The Pink Flamingo

Among the annals of absurd 80s trends, Members Only remains the most memorable. High tops and parachute pants at least offered ample ankle support and reduced friction for better breakdancing. But those damned jackets were less of a club than a cult—as though those elitist epaulettes and a little black label suggested better breeding or some such insinuated innuendo. (Full disclosure: I once wore all three, and not ironically.)

Fortunately, one of the city’s latest dining destinations is open to anyone—no jacket required.

The Pink Flamingo is the supper club you never knew you needed. More inclusive than exclusive, the roaming restaurant boldly bills itself as, “FUN in the world of seriousness, COMMUNAL in the world of capitalism, PLANTY in the world of meat.”

“The idea started with a conversation about not having a ‘third space’ outside of the bar,” explained Cam Williams, one of the initiative’s organizers. “It turns out, there are a lot of people looking for a space to gather with friends outside of work and their homes.”

The rules are as deceptively simple as the menu. Still in the start-up, pop-up phase, a $60 membership, or $15 a meal, affords access to the remainder of eight all-you-can-eat winter feasts focused on local, organic ingredients and a shift in how we think about what we put into our bodies, as well as into the environment. Traditional vegan favorites, artfully prepared to avoid common allergens, may look like a picnic or potluck, but go much deeper. It’s a table where everyone has a seat and a place.

“We are absolutely entering a more social era of dining,” Williams said. “We’re creating a membership-based restaurant, causing an intentional barrier to entry into our dining space. People must commit time and resources to become a member. It indicates they really want to be there.”

An upbringing in Westerville isn’t the obvious origin story for someone bent on changing the world. At 14, Williams traveled to Mexico on a medical mission trip that was profoundly different than the suburban splendor of what he described as “Pleasantville.” He noticed a 10-year-old girl pushing a stroller with a toddler not much younger than herself, only to learn the girl wasn’t her sister, just someone willing to help a neighbor in need. It was a community in crisis, but one that still took care of its own.

“I went back to Westerville and heard people complaining about our grass not being green enough, and saw our neighbors building six-foot high fences,” he recalled. “Where is the community?”

His early interest in international affairs led to a graduate degree in public administration and initial work in politics. But the increasingly clear connection between campaign contributions and legislative leverage left a bad taste in his mouth.

“It pushed me away from the public sector, and I decided I wanted to make an impact as an entrepreneur. That’s when I met Joe DeLoss, an adjunct instructor at OSU teaching a course on social entrepreneurship,” Williams revealed. “He happened to be about four months into starting Hot Chicken Takeover.”

Naysayers may dismiss Williams as a wide-eyed idealist who has bitten off more than he can chew. (After all, this is a guy who turned a box truck into a mobile home, recently hitting the road to help strangers in hurricane-ravaged Houston.) But his passion is as sincere as his purpose—sell enough memberships and their do-gooders dinner party will put down roots in a dedicated space. You have to change people’s minds before you can change the world.

Being a hero doesn’t always require a cape. Sometimes, it just takes a plate.

“We are trying to prove The Pink Flamingo is a business with a triple bottom line, committed to making decisions based on social justice and environmental rejuvenation alongside of financial sustainability,” Williams explained. “It’s easy to follow all of the social norms created for us. We discovered that once you question one norm, you free yourself to start challenging others.”


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