Photo courtesy of Urban Redevelopment Authority.

On Feb. 1, one of the coldest, snowiest days of the year, people sipped hot beverages at the new CARES CommuniTEA Café in the Hill District.

The sight warmed Shinora Grayson-Johnson’s heart. As COO of the Center That CARES, she’s happy to see the organization’s latest project open its doors to the public.

Located in the Centre Heldman Plaza at 1836 Centre Ave., the spot not only serves breakfast and lunch to folks in one of the city’s food deserts, it provides workforce experience to teenagers and young adults and is the first step toward revitalizing the neighborhood.

Diamonte Walker, deputy executive director of the URA, speaks at the grand opening of CARES CommuniTEA Café in the Hill District. Photo courtesy of the URA.

Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., customers can enjoy different coffee blends — with beans ground daily by Coffee Tree Roasters — named after famous Hill District residents (August Wilson) and other notable African Americans (Cicely Tyson).

The menu includes breakfast and lunch items ranging from soups, salads and fresh fruit with granola, to avocado toast and bagels with smoked salmon and capers. Local favorite Beyond Blessed Catering provides weekly specials such as seafood lasagna. Folks can take their goodies to go or sit and relax in the space, which was formerly a former Crazy Mocha.

The five-member staff is made up of high school and college students enrolled in vocational training programs run by CARES. Through a partnership with Community Kitchen Pittsburgh, participants can earn their food service certification.

Work from local artists adorns the walls and merchandise from area vendors is for sale throughout the storefront. There is free Wi-Fi along with a reading corner filled with books for the whole family.

Grayson-Johnson says it’s more than an eatery, it’s a community hub and learning lab. Once Covid restrictions are lifted, the site will host events including jazz performances and book club meetings.

The café is part of the City of Pittsburgh’s Avenues of Hope initiative, which launched in October 2020 to invest in small businesses in seven historically Black neighborhoods. Homewood, Larimer, Centre, Perrysville, Chartiers, and Warrington avenues will be prioritized, as will Irvine Street in Hazelwood. Avenues of Hope is partnering with the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to ensure more high-quality affordable housing will be built in the neighborhoods.

“We’re incredibly excited about CARES CommuniTEA Café’s grand opening and what it means for the Hill District,” says Diamonte Walker, deputy executive director of the URA. “This is a perfect example of how a publicly owned asset — Centre Heldman — can be leveraged to support community-driven initiatives, which is a core component of Avenues of Hope.”

In the fall of 2019, the URA acquired the 2.57-acre property for $1.6 million. In March 2020, the URA released a Request for Interested Tenants (RFI) for the vacant retail spaces in the plaza, which boasts a 30,410-square-foot grocery store (a former Shop ‘n Save) with a commercial kitchen and four semi-finished retail spaces that are between 777 and 1,527 square feet each.

The URA received more than a dozen responses from potential tenants, but Covid concerns forced many to halt those plans.

CARES CommuniTEA Café was selected based on community feedback. The Gallery on Centre, a retail incubator for minority-owned businesses, is planned this summer for the storefront adjacent to the café. It is similar to The Gallery on Penn in East Liberty, which is part of the Catapult: Startup to Storefront entrepreneurship program.

Rev. Glenn Grayson, senior pastor at the Wesley Center AME Zion Church and president and CEO of the Center That Cares, is excited for what the future holds for the Hill.

“The Center That CARES, with the outstanding support of Mayor William Peduto, Councilman R. Daniel Lavelle and the URA, is ecstatic to commence Black History Month with the grand opening of CARES CommuniTEA Café in the heart of the Hill District Centre Avenue corridor,” he says. “We look forward to the community and city supporting our youth social enterprise endeavor as we share in the revitalization of the Hill District. Bringing this café to fruition during this pandemic is a reflection of our city’s determination and commitment to push forward and spark innovative change through collective impact.”

Kristy Locklin is a North Hills-based writer. When she's not busy reporting, she enjoys watching horror movies and exploring Pittsburgh's craft beer scene.