A DiverCity conversation with the woman who runs the Village, creates community, and counts on the continuation of conversation across generations, all while keeping Boulder fed in the great greasy spoon tradition. You know it: 890 sq. ft. of reality surrounded by Boulder.
By: De La Vaca Photos: Paul Wedlake
Shanna Henkel is half-Japanese. She grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. Both of her mom’s grandmothers were mail-order (read: sex trafficked) brides brought to America by men who were already here with jobs. That worked out well for one, married for decades, while the other married an alcoholic who died by 35, leaving her with five kids. “They figured it out.”
Her grandmother survived the infamous Roosevelt Order 9066 to put people of Japanese descent in concentration camps. She was interned.
Shanna moved to Colorado fresh out of high school, worked on a dude ranch, then came to Boulder for university, and – after seven years working at Village Coffee Shop – she took the restaurant over. Her husband already had a culinary degree, the original owner’s kids didn’t want it, and she had already grown to love it. “Chuck,” she said, when asked if she was interested in buying the Village, “I love this restaurant,” and the rest is history. She and Ryan have been married 20 years.
With her degree in sociology from CU in hand she had no problem recognizing the “important sociological role in the community” that they were filling: the history is important, building connections over vast amounts of time, striving to build the authentic and meaningful relationships, the fact that as owner she’s only the third most tenured employee working there and that kids she knew in preschool – with legs draped and swinging over seats – are now graduating from grad school, getting married, and having their own kids; kids who now take turns swinging legs over a seat while eating breakfast.
Decades of love and investment are evident in every crack and crevice of this locale. It’s beyond a family’s intergenerational transfer of wealth. This is intergenerational transfer of community wealth. They’re building love, an extended family, a community that exists inside the greater Boulder community. 890 sq. feet of reality surrounded by Boulder. When you’re here, that feels incredibly true.
They build authentic relationships one meal at a time. By treating the staff like family and extending that to anyone that comes through the door, by being intentional and talking to the staff about what that means and what that looks like. “The food,” she says, “is secondary. It’s getting to know people, hearing people’s stories… they get to know each other.” There are regulars at different hours of the day. They become community among themselves. “We feel like everyone has inherent worth, and we want them to feel that when they come in here”.
If the kitchen doesn’t work, whether in a home or not, nothing works. Shanna’s kitchen is run, with support and supervision by her husband, by a crew of local Latinos. The wait staff and owners have all learned Spanish to support them and expand their own language skills. They keep prices down thanks to a great landlord, with the intent of making it accessible as a daily dining spot. She points out that, “the people that would choose to come to a greasy spoon diner, in the middle of a fancy place like Boulder, [whispers] are the excellent customers”.
Down to earth. Community. Loving. She loves the people that come into the Village. Real people.
She notes that Boulder has changed a lot. Gentrifications. Out-of-staters with second homes. She remembers when it was a hippy town, when she was smoking cigarettes at PennyLane, the grunge of it all. “It hasn’t ever been a place with a wealth of diversity,” she says, recalling very few friends of color. She wishes her kids saw and could interact with more people of color in their average day. But that’s not possible here. Pick your reasons: lack of diversity preventing diversity, cost of living, housing… the ongoing spats of anti-POC police incidents.
Shanna tells me she loves it at the Village. What’s the future? “I would be surprised if I didn’t work until I die, in some capacity,” she says. It’s possible. Village Coffee Shop is a central hub of community in Boulder. It is a “hangover haven,” according to the Camera, a breakfast paradise of traditional and original breakfast and lunch platters, and a place that quickly feels like home. You realize that as soon as they announce a new “Village Virgin” in the crowd and the entire restaurant erupts in applause and cheers, as is the custom.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a Village Virgin here!” It’s a strange, but heartwarming tradition. You feel like you belong when you clap along to welcome a new Villager. It reminds me of something I wrote a few years ago, if you’ll indulge the nostalgia:
“The list of people we love fluctuates, grows and contracts, expands past borders and other arbitrary lines, envelopes continents, learns new consonants, yet few remain as constants. For those that held fast as the sand trickled past, thank you. I love you. You keep me alive in the most literal, visceral, emotional ways. For those that have come along more recently, please stay. I need you. Even at my age…it takes a village.”
Thankfully, we have Village Coffee Shop to provide a village.