Haley House cafe’s closing is a blow to Dudley Square
James Harder walks to Haley House Bakery Café in Roxbury nearly every day after lunch for a favorite drink: a mix of Moroccan mint and China green teas with lemon slices.
But before going back to his office at Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries on Friday, Harder held his afternoon tea in front of the cafe’s sign and photographed it with his phone for an Instagram tribute. The beloved gathering spot plans to suspend its restaurant operation temporarily after business closes on Saturday, citing unsustainable financial losses.
“When you walked in, it kind of felt like family,” said Harder, who was called the “mayor of Haley House” in a Boston Phoenix story published about eight years ago. “It just felt like a place to be.”
The temporary closure of the cafe and bakery marks another chapter in the on again, off again efforts to revitalize Dudley Square.
Bing Broderick, Haley House’s executive director, announced plans to close the cafe for the time being in an e-mail Thursday evening. During the hiatus, Haley House, the nonprofit that operates the cafe, plans to revamp the business with the goal of reopening later this year.
“It’s an opportunity,” Broderick said Friday in a phone interview. “We’re going to look at what we do and how to do it best and how to make it sustainable.”
The cafe opened in a brick building in Dudley Square in August 2005, offering healthy food prepared from scratch for breakfast and lunch, organic coffees and teas, and free wireless Internet access. At the time, the neighborhood’s dining options were limited to pizza parlors and sub shops. A McDonald’s Express had recently closed, Broderick said.
The cafe quickly became a popular gathering spot for people from all walks of life, hosting community discussions, poetry slams, live music, and community dinners where guests paid only what they could afford for a three-course meal.
Patrons were also drawn to Haley House’s social mission. Established as a soup kitchen in the South End in 1966, the organization is known for using food to eliminate barriers, offering job training opportunities, teaching middle school students about nutrition and culinary arts, and offering employment to people with criminal records.
Despite its popularity, Broderick said, the bakery and cafe has never broken even, but came close some years. Haley House remained committed to the operation and purchased the building that houses it in 2015.
The same year, the Bruce C. Bolling Municipal Building opened in Dudley Square and became the new home of the Boston Public Schools, bringing about 500 city workers into the commercial district.
A new crop of restaurants opened in the neighborhood with mixed success. Dudley Dough, a pizzeria operated by Haley House, opened in the Bolling building, only to close in 2017. A nearby Tasty Burger closed a short time later.
Still, the new dining options in Dudley Square diverted some customers from Haley House Bakery Café, erasing the gains the business made toward achieving financial solvency, Broderick said.
“We weren’t necessarily going to break even and that was OK. We had a social mission that we were providing and that we were coming close [to breaking even] — it was good enough,” he said. “Over time, the amount we had to subsidize was increasing and, at a certain point, it was no longer sustainable.”
As a result of the suspended operations, six workers lost their jobs and six others had their hours reduced, Broderick said. The nonprofit plans to continue to run its wholesale and catering business as well as the culinary program for middle school students, he said. The Souper Bowl, a fund-raising event scheduled for Feb. 10, will be held as planned.
City Councilor Kim Janey, whose district includes the bakery and cafe, said more work needs to be done to make Dudley Square a viable business district. She said the city must do all it can to help the cafe reopen.
“Haley House is community and that’s what makes Haley House so special,” Janey said.
Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins said even a brief closure is a blow.
“They have been open and willing to hire ex-offenders to help them improve their station in life. Even being closed temporarily is disconcerting because of the work that they’ve done,” he said.
On Friday afternoon, the dining area was packed as some customers wondered how a spot that appears to be thriving could be struggling to survive.
“This place is often really busy,” said Jon Napoli, a Roxbury resident who owns Boston Gardener, a nearby business.
David Kay, a nonprofit consultant who lives in Jamaica Plain, said the cafe is like “the homeroom of the social justice world in Boston.”
“The thing that I’ve always said is that what Haley House serves is love,” he said. “The food is great. The people are great. But the love is real and it’s tangible. You can see it in the way folks are treated here and you can taste it in the food.”
Lee Matsueda, who works nearby, said he has visited the cafe for film screenings, meetings, and send-off parties for colleagues.
“It is sad. A lot of the folks that we work with, this is a gathering place for them,” said Matsueda, political director for Alternatives for Community & Environment.
Ricardo Bennett, a caseworker at the Department of Youth Services, said a friend recommended the cafe to him five years ago. He said he always orders the same meal: jerk chicken and slaw.
Bennett said he became friendly with the staff, paving the way for some of his DYS clients to get jobs at the cafe.
“They were all court- involved. They never judged them,” he said.
Harder, the customer who goes to the cafe for a tea, said he’s hopeful the business will reopen. “I’m confident they will. There’s a lot of support for them,” he said.
In the meantime, he’ll search for another spot for his afternoon pick-me-up.
“I’ll find a place,” he said. “I’ll figure it out.”
Correction: The name of the Boston Gardener business was misspelled in an earlier version of this article.