Iconic LGBT+ coffee shop Equal=Grounds sold to longtime customer

New ownership for Equal=Grounds coffeehouse

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ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When Harry Bronson and his husband John White-Bronson opened Equal=Grounds in 2006, it was illegal for them to be married.

“Back in the 2000s, there was really no social outlet for us to be authentic with each other,” White-Bronson said. “Unless we waited ’till nighttime to go to the bars with each other, and you know, that can get old. And we really wanted to be a couple in public and feel safe about it.”

So, with nowhere to go during the daytime, they made their own space: Equal=Grounds cafe. With rainbow decor and delicious coffee, the store on the corner of South Avenue and Caroline Street quickly grew into a South Wedge staple — and a safe haven for Rochester’s LGBT+ community.

“[When we opened] The whole LGBTQ+ community wasn’t even discussed,” White-Bronson said. “It wasn’t in newspaper, it wasn’t in the media, and so we did — I like to think — we normalized the discussion.”

The pair had set out (and succeeded) in creating a space open to not only those in the LGBT+ community, but anyone and everyone who wanted good coffee, strong Wi-Fi, and a sense of connection. Over the years, everyone from knitting groups to veterans in the residential program down the road took up meeting in the space.

“This is not your average coffeehouse, this is a coffeehouse with a mission,” White-Bronson said. “Defined by the atmosphere, and the customers who make this work.”

A space like that took a lot of work to maintain. So after nearly 18 years at the helm, the couple decided to sell.

“We’re not young guys,” Bronson said, laughing. “So we’re looking at enjoying ourselves a little bit more, and maybe carry on with hobbies and things of that nature.”

Enter Monique Chatman, longtime customer and established small business owner.

“Being a member of the LGBTQ community, I knew that everyone could meet here and be comfortable with no judgement,” Chatman said.

She said she wasn’t sure about taking on Equal=Grounds at first. But when the couple approached her —

“The energy that we had almost two decades ago, she has currently, and so, it’s going to take it to steps and levels that it hasn’t seen before and we’re excited about that and excited about the legacy to continue,” Bronson said.

Chatman always thought a coffee shop would be her retirement career.

“I planned on doing it in the next 10-15 years, not immediately,” she said. “But something just kept pushing me to say you can do it you can get it, this is already an established business, you don’t have to teach this baby how to walk.” 

The biggest change is technically a small one: it’s now Equal Grounds Community Cafe. 

Among other tweaks, Chatman hopes to add vegan options to the menu. She also wants to scale up the kitchen and coffee equipment to accommodate mobile orders. The decor will also be getting an upgrade, save for a few iconic pieces like the pride flag wall.

But the line of flags will be getting some additions, sourced straight from Equal=Grounds customers.

“If you don’t see your flag, bring us one so that we can add it to the wall,” Chatman said. “So that it’s not just inclusive to the LGBT+ community, but I want everyone’s flag to be up there so when they come in they can feel a sense of pride as well.”

Even with new ownership (and new items on the menu), Chatman said customers at Equal=Grounds can still expect the same welcoming environment that’s always been around.

“This is a safe haven for the community, not just one set of people,” Chatman said. “I just want everyone to come in here and feel comfortable with respect.”

Equal=Grounds will have a soft launch on Friday, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.