Teens encouraged to loiter, hang out, have fun at Manchester nonprofit Chester Cafe

Tucked in the back of a building on the 3100 block of Main Street in Manchester, opening out on to Long Lane, is a tiny coffee shop. You can get a milkshake there, perhaps a quesadilla, or even a collectible figurine, any evening of the week.

On the last Friday before Christmas, not long after dark, the place was packed with teens. Teens in ugly sweaters.


But the place is almost always packed with teens — that’s really the idea behind The Chester Cafe.

“We tell them, ‘Please loiter. This is the one place where it’s OK,” said cafe owner Dawn Horst. “We want you to loiter, we want you to just be here, you don’t have to spend money.”


The memory of being run off from establishments when she was a teen still fresh, Horst realized her 13-year-old, Logan, and his friends needed a safe place to just be, without necessarily being customers. And so on Black Friday, 2016, the Chester Cafe, a nonprofit, was born.

“It’s a teen hangout center for basically any teens that live around here,” said Brianna Pamplin, a junior at Manchester Valley High School. “Everybody here is really cool and accepting, and also, it’s a nice place to go after school to work on homework or to just talk to people and your friends.”

There were more than a dozen teens ranging in age from 12 to 18 at the cafe on Friday, Dec. 22, some watching television, some playing guitar, others playing games from drama classes and still others cooking pizzas and mixing milkshakes. But the theme for this particular evening was the ugly holiday sweater contest.

“They wanted to do something for the holiday, but they didn’t want to do the typical Christmas or ‘holiday party,’ so we kind of just said let’s just all wear really awful sweaters,” Horst said. “We decided to do a contest to see who has the ugliest, the funniest, and who is the very best trier.”

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There were some truly hideous sweaters, too, though there were those that tried to varying things up. Manchester Valley High School senior Skye Kopf wore a red sweater with Christmas lights that actually light using a small battery back.

“I wanted to be the rebel and wear a nice sweater that lights up, so I could go around and say ‘I’m lit’ when it turns on,” she said.

Kopf began coming to The Chester Cafe after school at the beginning of her senior year, and she said she plans to keep coming long after graduation.

“Nothing can change that,” she said. “It’s a really positive vibe and all the kids here are really nice and sweet and fun to be around. It’s a great time.”

The Chester Cafe is open 2 p.m to 6 p.m Monday through Thursday and 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Fridays, according to Horst.

“We do special events and Saturday and Sunday, more organized events,” she said. “Things like Dungeons and Dragons tournaments — we love D & D here — or we’ll do guitar club or something.”

Many of those special events, as with the ugly sweater contest, are driven by the teens. It’s even where the cafe’s name came from, a play on the Cheshire Cat.

“We did like an Alice in Wonderland theme: everyone’s a little mad here, everyone’s a little off-kilter, you’ll fit right in,” Horst said. “We were playing with the ‘Cheshire’ and then we said ManCHESTER and and then we said, why don’t we just say Chester, instead of Cheshire? The kids came up with that.”

The Cafe really runs itself with its patrons, Horst said, with many of them working behind the counter to earn services hours.

“They can come in and help me restock and there are a few that we pay,” she said. “We do train them to kind of like run the register, and open and close, and clean up and balance a till, so when they do go somewhere else that is a little more demanding and hectic, they’re ready for it.”

And even those who don’t take a shift behind the counter are encouraged to come in and stay, Horst said, even if they don’t have much money that day.

“Everyone gets a house account here and they can charge on the house up to $10,” Horst said. “They don’t have the money necessarily, but I want them to be able to come to an event like this and have the milkshakes, have whatever.”

The whole idea, she said, is to keep the kids in a safe, fun place, where they won’t be chased off for not having money. Where they won’t get into trouble.

“I haven’t had one problem in a year of being open,” Horst said. “Some people are like, “Teens! They’re gathering!” But it’s not like that. They’re great — they had a nine-hour long Monopoly marathon the other day.”

What Horst and her teenage patrons could use is some more support, she said. People who might call in and pay off some house accounts for the kids, come in and buy a drink or provide in-kind donations.

The number one thing when people say, what do you need? Snacks,” Horst said. “Bags of chips, snacks, a case of water. Things the kids would need after school.”

Ultimately, a larger space would be really helpful, and perhaps another adult willing to get involved and take a shift, Horst said, “even if it was just two hours a week so that Logan and I can actually eat dinner before 9 p.m.”

Those interested can get in touch through The Chester Cafe on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheChesterCafe.

“And there is a donate button, there is a volunteer button, There is a contact us button,” she said. “All of that is there and they can find out whatever they need to know. They can call me or email me or whatever.”

And should things continue to do so well, Horst noted, and there are others who would like to step up, the Chester Cafe could have some sister locations.

“We are set up to have almost like a franchise, where we can open additional sites, so we could do one in Westminster,” she said. “I have the model, I can help them do it, but it’s the space, it’s the volunteers. The kids will come, that was easy.”

As it is, the Chester Cafe in Manchester has drawn Kaileigh Cox, a freshman at Francis Scott Key High School, who lives in Taneytown.

“It’s basically like a family here, in a sense. We’re all so tightly knit that you can come here and talk about your problems or do your homework and it doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s worth the drive.”

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