HARLEM — Since it opened in 2008, Michelle Cruz's East Harlem Cafe has been more than a coffee shop.
On any given day, you can find an open mic, a charity fundraiser or an event to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS in conjunction with The Mt. Sinai Hospital at the eatery on 104th Street and Lexington Avenue.
"The feedback from our customers is how this place changes who they are and who they talk to," said Cruz. "We'd like to think we are a thread that pulls the community together."
That's why Cruz decided to ask patrons and supporters to help fund $10,000 worth of improvements necessary to help keep the cafe financially healthy and simultaneously add to the health of the neighborhood.
Cruz is asking supporters and patrons to donate money to fund a new display case that will allow her to offer to-go salads and yogurts, as well as diabetic-friendly foods. She also wants a juicer to serve healthy drinks such as carrot juice.
With a larger menu, the cafe can stay open later to support community events.
And Cruz wants to raise the money in just 30 days. That works out to a little over $333 per day.
"It's been a challenge in raising capital," she said.
"We are a small business and we took on debt to start up the business. We don't want to create more debt and find ourselves in a position where we hit a speed bump and we wouldn't be able to keep our doors open."
So far, she has raised $685 in just 24 hours using the website Indiegogo and received many other pledges.
"It was tough for me to ask for money but, at the same time, we provide a service rather than a product by connecting people and showing the love and flavor of El Barrio," she said.
She also wants to help make El Barrio healthier with the new offerings that new equipment will allow her to serve.
East Harlem is a food desert. Only 3 percent of bodegas carry fresh, leafy green vegetables compared to 30 percent on the Upper East Side, according to a city study. Six of every 10 adults in East and Central Harlem are overweight or obese.
"Our plan is to create more healthy options," Cruz said.
Running the shop hasn't been easy because it opened at the height of the recession, Cruz said. But loyal customers have consistently supported the endeavor, which serves fair trade coffee.
One customer helps other patrons so much that many think he's the owner, Cruz said. When a truck pulled up recently to deliver supplies, two customers walked out to help unload without being asked.
"You feel comfortable here and it's better than going to Starbucks," said Larry Divack, 64, a musician who works at the nearby Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts and stops in three to four times a week.
"It's a great idea," he said of asking supporters to help out. "This place should definitely stay in business."
Cruz said she not only plans on staying in business, but thriving so the cafe can continue to be a resource for El Barrio.
"The only thing that has toughened in this economy is my faith," Cruz said.