Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Vancouver zero-waste cafe works to build community over coffee

Samantha Thompson / The Runner

“I like starting, creating, building,” says Lisa Papania, the owner of a zero-waste Vancouver cafe called Lupii. The cafe serves coffee and features a vegetarian menu, but they’re also determined to play a positive role in their community.

Papania is also a lecturer at Simon Fraser University’s Beedie School of Business. She has always taught her courses practically, where her students learn through hands-on experiences. Many of her courses have partnered with SFU’s CityStudio program, which connects students with city staff and community members to co-create, design and launch innovative programs in Vancouver. She and her students have long been exploring different ways to improve sustainability in the city, and in business. Lupii was a way for these ideas to come together.

The cafe is located in the southeast neighbourhood of Champlain Heights, a mixed-income, mixed housing community. The space that Lupii now occupies was previously home to Champlain Video, a store famous for its gumball machine and staff member Alan Wong, who inspired his own Facebook fan page. When the store closed its doors in 2014, Papania saw an opportunity to implement what she and her students had been working on for years, and a way to help shape the neighbourhood she’s lived in with her family for the past decade.

“We just wanted a space where people could be known and get to know each other, and have conversations,” she says of Lupii. “And if you knew people and they knew you, and then you had a conversation about why it was a bad idea to throw stuff away, and throw people away, and throw relationships away, then you could start to have an impact on how people behave.”

A large component of Lupii is that they’re zero-waste, but it’s only one part of what they’re aiming to do. Papania emphasizes that when looking at issues related to environmental sustainability, there is always a connection to social and community awareness. Many solutions lie in getting to know one another, especially your neighbours, so that resources can be shared instead of wasted. Simultaneously, people begin to feel like they’re a part of something, which helps to address the social isolation that often plagues urban spaces.

Samantha Thompson / The Runner

“There’s so much that we can solve,” says Papania. “These problems are interconnected. If we knew people we’d be able to waste less, [and] we’d be able to share more.”

Lupii hosts a number of events that are designed to build these interpersonal connections—each month they host a free community dinner, and they’ve also hosted a support group for families with disabilities, a number of craft and skill share fairs, clothing and toy swaps, and drop-in events for children and youth. There is also a meal each day that is available for free to those who can’t afford to pay, and they subsidize lunches for children at the nearby school. Many of the ideas for these events have come from customers, which allows Lupii to directly meet the needs of the community.

“It wasn’t that I wanted to have a coffee shop …  it was never what I thought I’d be doing,” says Papania. “I still don’t know if this is the right form for it, but it’s the best way that I can see right now where I can bring all of those pieces together, and I can get people talking … and educate in an environment where people are welcome, and they’re welcomed.”

As Lupii closes in on their one-year anniversary, Papania admits that it’s difficult for her to see the cafe in the long term.

“One of the very first papers that I wrote in my PhD program was how companies need to be responsive and attend to the community, and long term that has to happen,” she says. “If you want to be able to survive economically, you have to first survive socially. People have to trust you, people have to want to support you, you have to attend to the community’s needs first and foremost. [The community events] are important before we do anything else, and that has meant that it’s very very difficult for us to actually see a future.”

In an effort to help with costs, on April 1 Lupii embraced a non-profit business model and became the Lupii Community Cafe. Customers can now help themselves to a healthy vegetarian buffet, coffee, and tea, for $5. As long as it can, Lupii will continue what it’s doing: bringing people together in conversation so that community connections grow stronger while simultaneously promoting environmental sustainability.

“Just knowing people,” says Papania, “Especially in this neighbourhood, is really important in just being able to do better.”