Making Space with Kelli Lemon

— Emilie von Unwerth Kelli Lemon is a person, is a brand, is a force of nature. She’s magnetic, effusing an electric energy that leaves you feeling alive, empowered, ready to take on not just your day, but the entire world. With an energy this tangible, it seems only natural that this social entrepreneur — who hosts private events, a podcast, and radio shows on both iPower 92.1 and KissFM — would gravitate to the coffee scene. Lemon’s social cafe, Urban Hang Suite, however, was not born out of her love for coffee. “I used to have my daily cup of cream and sugar with a little bit of coffee in it,” she says. It was actually her Coffee with Strangers podcast that nudged her into the coffee scene. “I inherently became the coffee girl,” laughs Lemon. “So I started looking at the creation of coffee shops from a social aspect in the ‘90s with Friends — and how that whole culture was created, doing research on Starbucks, going deeper, understanding the industry,” she says. She wanted to go beyond a coffee shop, beyond a cafe.

So Urban Hang Suite — one of Richmond’s only black-owned coffee shops, along with Brewer’s Cafe in Southside — was born. But what drives a person who doesn’t really love coffee to open, well, a coffee shop? “Not seeing it,” says Lemon. “And being privileged enough to do it. My parents worked really, really hard to make sure that I had a good education and a diverse life. I think that drives a lot of why I do what I do and why I create the things I create.”

“I was raised with the best of both worlds,” she goes on to say. “I went to Atlee High School, my parents lived in Hanover. And, to me, every weekend was ‘how do I get as far away as possible from Hanover and into Richmond?’ I had my friends from high school, and went off to UVA, and had my friends from college, but I always knew where I was from. I know what my family means to me and what my blackness means to me. That culture and that history is in Richmond — buried or not it’s here.” With Urban Hang Suite, Lemon not only wanted to create a space for the black community to get together, she wanted to create a space where people from every community could walk in, feel welcome, and have a good time. “I can go into white spaces and feel good and be recognized, but also be sad at the fact that I’m the only black face in those spaces,” she says. “And then I come to black spaces, and I mean, we’re turnt up, we’re having the best time ever. And this is how we live, all the time! I want to introduce other communities to the way we look at a coffee shop space. I want to say, ‘come on over to our side, you don’t have to be scared.’”

Deviating from the minimalist, almost stark vibe of so many Richmond spots, UHS is warm, inviting, and comfortable. Every inch functions exactly the way Lemon designed it to — the front of the shop is intended for people grabbing a quick drink or meal, or for people who want to work in solitude, complete with nooks and crannies that feel warm and inviting. Past the coffee counter and through a curtain-framed doorway, the back is set up as the hang suite. There are cafe tables, lounge seating, and a stage. One wall is filled with an impressive collection of Vibe magazines. There are also televisions on the walls, something Lemon says helps drive the conversation. (“I try to keep the news on, and I show all the channels, even Fox.”)

The intention and consideration of Urban Hang Suite extends to the neighborhood it lives in. “Some of the richest, most affluent blacks in Richmond lived in [Jackson Ward],” says Lemon. “And an interstate came and literally ripped this neighborhood apart, because people were scared of the growth. People were scared of what Maggie Walker was doing, what Bill Bojangles Robinson was doing… To know that this building was on the black side of commerce and retail, it’s important.” So Lemon didn’t choose Jackson Ward. “Jackson Ward chose me,” she says. I feel good, I know that the ancestors come in here. There’s no ill feeling in here.” Existing as a black-owned business (and a black woman-owned business, at that) in the middle of VCU land, I wondered what Lemon envisions for the future of Richmond. “The magic wand is that we’re going to be this very inclusive, loyal to local, we-built-it-it’s-ours, we-support-it-because-it’s-ours city,” says Lemon, musingly. “What I pray for is that the new Richmonder — the RVA Richmonder — comes in and sees this part of Richmond.”

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