On a recent Friday night, the stage was set for the first open mic night at the Nest, a coffee shop that opened just down the street from St. Louis Park High School last summer.
But the students inside the cozy, intimate space — about 20 of them — were in no rush to get started. After all, it was students who had worked for years to launch what they called “the Park’s youngest coffee shop.” They could decide their own call time.
So they hung around in the adjoining room, its walls a cool mint green in contrast to the other room’s warm orange bricks. As “Creep” by Radiohead played over the speakers, they rehearsed their own acts, strumming ukuleles, practicing flute runs and reading song lyrics on their phones.
Once ready, they entered the main room, sat in colorful wooden chairs and clapped as the first act made its way to the stage.
The open mic was just one of several groups and events the Nest has hosted since it opened on the first day of school. Students have shown up with increasing frequency to see just what the little building with the oriole painted on the front has to offer.
Spaces like the Nest — created by students for students, away from school and home — are rare. One of the only other examples in the Twin Cities is the Depot Coffee House in neighboring Hopkins, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018 and which the Nest’s creators often cite as an inspiration for their own coffee shop.
The teens who frequent them say the spaces offer an opportunity to focus on their personal growth: academically, socially, creatively and mentally.
“For me and I’m sure like every other high school student, it’s a really stressful time to be in high school,” said Estelle Tronson, a senior at the school and a member of the Nest’s art committee. “Something like this is really great because I’m able to take a moment to pause and think about myself and what I want.”
Students have also found the support of elected officials, school administrators and community groups. Karen Atkinson, the executive director of Children First, a St. Louis Park organization focused on improving youth participation, said spaces like the Nest provide young people opportunities to be leaders and positive influences.
“The Nest couldn’t have happened if adults in this community didn’t understand the vision of the kids,” she said.
An alternative to McDonald’s
For years, students at St. Louis Park had sought a place they could call their own. Their options right outside of school were limited.
“The only place within walking distance of the high school where you could actually sit down and maybe get some food was McDonald’s over there,” said Tronson. “We really wanted somewhere else where you could have a lot of opportunities to become creative and comfortable.”
So a group of students and parents began meeting regularly to turn their dream into a reality. They gave their project a fitting name: the Nest.
They met with leaders of the Depot in Hopkins to learn how that venue grew from a student concept into one of the most beloved gathering spots in the city. It required partnerships with local institutions, community outreach and fundraising. Lots of it.
It also required the students to be the lead visionaries. The job of the grown ups, said Marta Hill, a junior and student vice chair of the Nest board, was to keep them down to earth.
“It’s very good we have adults, because a lot of things we could not do without them,” Hill said. “But it’s always been student driven.”
Last summer, they also received the financial support of the City Council, which matched $25,000 in funding for the project. In the Nest, St. Louis Park Mayor Jake Spano saw a desire by students to reclaim their time.
“In this day and age, kids’ lives are programmed,” Spano said, using the busy schedule of his own son as an example. “A lot of it is controlled by grown-ups.”
“I think, increasingly, the youth in St. Louis Park are looking to have more of a say over the course of their own events,” he said. “We wanted to support the kids’ mission.”
They secured enough funding over 2018 to lease out a building. Students, including Hill and Tronson, helped paint the walls, lay out the furniture, curate student art and more.
And don’t forget the coffee. Minnesota companies Driven Coffee Roasters and Muddy Paws Cheesecake now sell their products at the shop, too.
The Nest does have one adult employee: Ellen Pajor serves as the youth adviser in charge of day-to-day operations. Two full-time student employees also joined the team.
Pajor, 27, was hooked by what she felt was a high level of decisionmaking by students. It wasn’t just “tokenism,” she said, such as adding kids to a board while the adults made all the rules.
The Nest also reminded her of a place she didn’t have growing up in Missouri.
“I remember going into coffee shops like this and kind of getting the stink eye from other customers,” she said. “Like, ‘What are you doing here, you’re a teenager, you’re coming in with all your loud friends.’ ”
She said: “A place without a stigma that you’re a teenager, I think, is really important.”
A space to destress
St. Louis Park students have slowly taken advantage of what the Nest has to offer.
The De-Stress Club, formed by students, meets at the Nest each Monday. Students are encouraged to relax through yoga, meditation, crafts and other activities. The concept was recently boosted with a grant from the St. Louis Park Family Services Collaborative.
“You’ll always see a face that you recognize there,” said Bella Birkeland, a club founder.
The board is looking to book more events like the recent open mic.
The event was the first time Patrick Djerf, a junior and the event’s emcee, stepped foot in the cafe.
“When I first walked in, I noticed that it just had a very nice environment,” he said. “I kind of felt like I should have my shoes off. It felt like a home.”
The first act of the night was a cover of “Riptide” by Vance Joy, backed by a ukulele quartet. Tronson and her friends performed a comedy skit. Hill later flew through a Bach piece for the flute.
The showcase wrapped up before 9 p.m., but the students showed no signs of leaving. They returned to the mint-green room to play cards, chess and other games.
Not bad for a Friday night.