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Funny Business: Circus Cooperative Cafe Opens in Former Darwin’s Location in Cambridge

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The Circus Cooperative Cafe — located in the recently closed Darwin’s cafe and run by some of its former employees — opened Sept. 12 on the outskirts of Harvard Square after a soft opening two days earlier for friends and family.

The co-op is located on 31 Putnam Ave., the site of one of the four Darwin’s locations that shuttered late last year. Following the closures, a small group of former Darwin’s employees began plans to open a worker-owned cafe and raised just over $13,000 on GoFundMe.

Co-owner Caleb S. Zedek said the day of the grand opening was “crazy.”

“There were like 20 people in the door in the first 15 minutes. We sold out of pastries in, I think, 40 minutes,” Zedek said. “We have continuously heard from customers that they are incredibly happy that there’s a cafe in the neighborhood again.”

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The Circus Cooperative Cafe takes its name from what many employees saw as the circus-like atmosphere of the old Darwin’s locations.

The co-op’s team of four has since added two new people and is looking for a couple more employees, according to Zedek.

Everyone who joins the cooperatively-owned cafe will be on “an ownership track,” Zedek said. During the initial six-month employment period, new employees get to know the business while the current owners ensure that they “fit in with the culture.” After that, there is an opportunity for ownership for each worker.

“I think our goal, at the very least, is to prove that employee ownership is a viable model,” Zedek said.

Zedek said he hopes the members of the Circus Cooperative Cafe can be a “resource” for future groups of employees who may need support “figuring out purchasing a business that they know and love.”

While the co-owners have all worked at a cafe before, Zedek said the team is still “learning as we go.”

On the store’s food and drink selections, Zedek said the menu at Circus is a bit smaller than it was at Darwin’s and that it is more “streamlined.” In addition to the standard cafe beverage and pastry options, there are sandwiches familiar to former Darwin’s customers as well as some brand new choices.

“We wanted people to be able to come in and still find a couple of the sandwiches that they are used to enjoying,” Zedek said. “We have also added a couple of sandwiches of our own.”

Zedek mentioned the Go Chu sandwich in particular, which is a chicken salad sandwich with gochujang mayo, a little bit of cilantro, and “some really fantastic homemade pickles.”

Emma Atlas, a local resident who grew up visiting Darwin’s, described the cafe as a “cozy, good place to do work.”

“But I have a bit of a special place in my heart for Darwin’s, so it’s a bit hard coming here knowing it’s not the same — but it’s similar,” she said.

Zedek said the team aspired for the Circus Cafe to become a “community space.” Inside, there is a shelf where customers can leave “books, zines, art” to share with the neighborhood. The cafe will soon carry copies of the Boston Compass, a local newspaper.

Ellen Frith, a Cambridge resident, spoke about the Circus Cooperative Cafe’s space as having been a “gathering place for a long time.” The location’s previous two tenants — Petsi Pies and Darwin’s — were both coffee shops.

“It’s just I think important to have a neighborhood gathering and a place for people to get to know each other and maybe be able to affect some changes,” Frith said.

—Crimson staff writer Caroline K. Hsu can be reached at caroline.hsu@thecrimson.com.

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