Big E's: the only non-profit coffee shop in America?

all photos Corey Rae Rodda/Catalyst

Big E’s smells like grease. Local art adorns its walls and its lending library is filled with well-thumbed books.

“Big E’s is the only non-profit coffee shop in America,” regular Michael John Silverman announced.

Since last year, the coffee shop has modified its menu, adding vegan ice cream, homemade ice cream and more wheat-free, vegetarian and vegan items. Brice Hamilton, the owner of Big E’s, reflected that these changes have resulted in more New College and health-conscious customers.

Big E’s is doing better financially than last year. “I actually can pay all my bills on time,” Hamilton said. “I still may lose my house, but that’s just because of banks being banks. But the business is doing much better. Plus, I think we’ve been more consistent with our food. We’ve been trying to work to make everything taste good.”

Hamilton said that he never would have fathomed that Big E’s would become such a hub for art and creativity. He invites local artists to hang their art on the walls at no charge even if they make a sale. The café hosts frequent open-mic nights, chess night on Tuesdays (players range in age from seven to 70) and Go, a Japanese strategy game, on Sundays. It is a meeting ground for many artists.

“What is gonna hold me for the long run is the people who have met here,” Hamilton reflected. “There have been some husbands and wives that have met here, but also many artists and musicians. In the long run, one of them is going to be internationally known because we have some super-talented musicians, videographers and photographers. By talking to people you know what they need and what you can help them with. I love helping people who are looking to do filmmaking and editing.”

Two movie pilots have been filmed inside Big E’s. One, called US Post, was a comedy based at a post-office for Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the other was geared towards the SYFY network.

The lending library at Big E’s first consisted solely of Hamilton’s books, but now is filled with books from a variety of community members. “You see everything from super conservative zines to super liberal ones,” Hamilton explained. “It’s good to read and understand people’s point of view so that you don’t vilify them. We do that here since we have homeless people and former congress people [dining at Big E’s]. You can see that a homeless person is not evil and that [he or she is] a real person.”

The Catalyst asked Hamilton how he musters enough steam to work 70-plus hours a week at Big E’s. “Caffeine and sugar, and probably because I feel like I actually make a difference,” he answered. “Maybe not a big difference. It can be as small as a meal to a homeless person [or] just having a place where people feel safe.”

The restaurant was remodeled over the summer by customers dissatisfied with its dismal aura. According to Hamilton, 30 customer volunteers helped with the remodel.

Big E’s is well-known for its inexpensive prices.  “The last two times, prices have been raised because customers redid my menus and redid the prices, changing them to higher prices,” Hamilton said. “I never want to rip anyone off and I know that I’m making a good profit on these things … plus, some of the people here can’t afford it. This is their big night out. To have a burger here is their big event once a month.

“My philosophy of life is a Shakespeare quote, ‘Love all, trust few and do wrong to none,’” he continued. “That’s kind of how I try to live my life. I probably trust too many people and I probably wrong people whether I know that I’m doing it or not.”

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