Letting in the Light

The old Sons of Norway building on the city’s near east side finds new life as The Winnebago, a cafe and venue space infused with an ethos of inclusion.

Tori Vancil didn’t set out to be a construction worker or a cafe manager. He finds himself now able to call himself both, through his work with the newly opened Winnebago.

Located at 2262 on the street of the same name, tucked behind the new Union Corners development and between railroad tracks and the old-school neighborhood bar Woody & Anne’s, The Winnebago occupies the 95-year-old cream brick building that was the former home of a fraternal group, the Sons of Norway.

Brothers Jake and John DeHaven bought the place last year and have since undertaken a massive and lovingly done remodel, including literally raising the roof. Tori, an old friend of Jake’s, was moving back from a stint in California with his wife, Claire, when Jake invited him to be part of the project.

“We were living on a little winery and vegetable farm in the hills of Northern California,” says Tori. “During that time I came to the realization that I needed to start my transition. So we were going to come home for that so I could be near my family and figure out our healthcare system—if anyone can do that.”

The DeHaven’s closed on the building in April 2018, the same month Tori began taking testosterone for the first time. “It’s been a year of change, for sure,” he says with a smile.

Tori says that, despite his lack of major experience with remodeling or construction, Jake trusted him to do the work and gave him space to express his creativity. “He gave me space to just be myself, unapologetic. He made space for me in a world where, in my experience, trying to find jobs in construction as a young butch lesbian or a young trans man is not fun…This was the first time I felt really confident in using my skills and learning new skills, and Jake was a huge part of that.”

The process ended up involving a whole group of friends and many long hours in the hot sun, redoing the roof, tearing down walls, and opening windows.

“It was so dirty and grimy,” Tori says of the interior. They discovered a beautifully colored, handmade tile floor in the front room after powerwashing, and a lovely vaulted roof behind a drop tile ceiling in the back room that’s now the live performance venue. 

“All these windows were boarded up,” he notes. “It was dark and no light came in here. I feel like it didn’t see the light of day for like 60 years. We brought the light back in this building.”

Part of that light is in the environment Tori and others have set out to create from the get-go. Several of the staff are LGBTQ+ identified as well, and Tori made a point to install a gender neutral bathroom, in addition to putting up signs encouraging patrons not to question people about their bathroom choices.

“The biggest thing that I’ve really wanted to bring to the table here in this establishment is just a super inclusive space,” says Tori. “A place where you can be yourself in all that you are and feel comfortable here, feel welcomed here, feel like there is space for you here.”

That ethic is reflected in the programming for the beautiful back room, where a large stage faces an open floor dotted with tables, and a long wooden bar at the back. There’s space for live music (including folk, queer punk, hip hop, and jazz) and dance parties, and Tori hopes to see theater and other performance as well.

The cafe is homey and inviting, with Kickapoo Coffee and Rishi tea on offer throughout the day. The breakfast and lunch menu is small but appealing, with a focus on comfort. The Shakshuka was a pleasant surprise to find, perfectly balanced, and with a chunk of delicious, locally baked bread on the side. Quiches, biscuits and gravy, an oyster mushroom melt, and sourdough French toast are all delicious. There are options for vegetarians and vegans, and grab-and-go items as well.

Tori is proud of the work they’ve all put into the space, and he’s committed to sticking around and continuing to learn the ropes in his role as a cafe manager.

“I’m still learning! We’re all learning together,” he says with a laugh. “It means a lot to me that we’ve created a space here where the other staff members, the actual physical space itself, the management—it’s all working. That’s the goal, to have a diverse, unique, colorful group of people who are truly themselves and don’t feel like they have to be anything else…Now we’ve busted open all the windows, we’ve unlocked the doors, and we just want everybody to come in.”

See more at thewinnebago.com. —Emily Mills

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