Prodigy Coffeehouse Opening Doors of Opportunity

The new social venture in Elyria-Swansea strives to not only serve a mean cup of joe, but to  deliver transferable job skills to its employees.
Behind the counter at Prodigy Coffeehouse, Frankie Rodarte is learning how to make art out of hot milk: Hearts, leaves and elephants that will, once perfected, top lattes. A wail of steam escaping from the giant espresso machine drowns out the Brazilian music that plays softly through house speakers. On this hot July day, the air inside the light-filled former auto shop is thick with the aroma of roasting coffee beans.

Rodarte lives across the street from Prodigy, a new cafe and social venture in Elyria-Swansea. She's part of a group that's shown up every day for weeks to learn the coffee business, from the history of the bean to the art of the pour-over. When the establishment opens on July 30, it will be run almost entirely by young people, most of them African-American and Latino, all between the ages of 16 and 24.

"I don't have a lot of experience in the work world," says Rodarte, 20. "When I walked by and saw them building and painting chairs with spray paint, I just came over and asked if I could work here. I went online and found Steph, and now here I am."

Steph is Stephanie Frances, Prodigy's founder and executive director. Her professional background in nonprofits, education and youth empowerment all serve her in this new role. But right now, she's operating more like a construction site manager. And a coffee coach.

"What's a breve cortado?" Frances asks a group of 15 kids, her black leggings speckled with sawdust; there are paint flecks in her short, brown hair. No one answers. "Come on, you know this. You know I like to give you hard drinks."

"It's, like, espresso with a little bit of milk," says a guy in a cap.

Correct. Good. Frances then asks about customer service: How can a mood can change an interaction with a customer?

"You never know what a person is going through," says a girl named Izzy. "But you can always brighten someone's day by being kind and polite no matter what."

"That's right," says Frances. "You have that power, to be kind. You have the power to do more than just serve them coffee; you have the power to love."

Kinship and communityNew employees are paid the industry average for baristas.

"Love" is a word you hear a lot when talking about Prodigy Coffeehouse with Frances. Mainly, she loves the team of young people who will make the cafe work -- and who will most benefit when it does.

"This is not a charity case," she says. "This is about building a successful, competitive business, and exposing them to excellence. Many of these young people will stay with us as we tweak and refine the model, as we grow. They can become managers. They can help us expand."

The idea for Prodigy first percolated during the ten years Frances spent in youth career development at Goodwill Industries, one of the largest and oldest social ventures in the United States. There, she learned about the social venture business model, wherein revenue is directed to programs and people, not profit margins.

The concept crystallized when Frances visited Homeboy Industries, which provides a range of supports to former gang members and formerly incarcerated men and women in Los Angeles. The huge, expanding program is funding through six social ventures including a bakery and Homegirl Café & Catering. Homeboy's founder, Father Greg Doyle, is now an adviser to Frances and the Prodigy team.

"It was really powerful seeing the culture they've built at Homeboy, and how important it is, that feeling of kinship and community," Frances says. "It allowed me to visualize it firsthand. I walked away feeling that we could do it and make it a profitable enterprise.

"There are a lot of ingrained negative stereotypes about youth and what it's like to work with them, what it takes," she continues. "But I'm tired of blaming them, especially the poor kids and the brown kids. It's our responsibility as adults to create structures that work for them. I had a sense that if we did that, they would access their talents, show up and blow us away."

Jeffrey Knott, Prodigy's operations manager, has helped open such successful Denver cafes as Thump in Cheesman Park, Pigtrain at Union Station and Novo in West Highland, training hundreds of baristas in the process. He says Prodigy's staff will be able to compete with any of them.

"We train them in everything, because we want the overall customer experience to be great, and to have a product we're proud of," he says. "I'm amazed everyday by how much they learn, how much information they retain. These are skills they can take with them to any job."

Prodigy employees -- known as "apprentices" because the cafe is a learning environment -- are paid the industry average for baristas just starting out. Some are part time, some are full. All meet the primary criteria that they have both enthusiasm and financial need and live close by. A full 80 percent of the team members live within walking distance of the shop, which is located just west of Colorado Boulevard on 40th Avenue in a building that has served, officially, as a Jiffy Lube and, unofficially, as a marijuana growhouse and a squat. It's now covered with a mural by Bimmer Torres, which was created in collaboration with youth during a series of design workshops.

Prodigy co-founders Stephanie Frances, left, and Hillary Frances.A new beginning

"It kind of feels like we're in a renaissance era, a rebirth," says Sha'Ron Johnson, 20, who has lived in the neighborhood her whole life. "You always see liquor stores and dispensaries. It's like, 'Why not build something positive in low-income communities? Give people a place to feel a positive vibe, get a piece of mind and a cup of coffee."

Despite Frances' lack of business experience, she convinced backers that Prodigy was a sound investment. The Denver Foundation provided an Economic Opportunity grant of $20,000 and a loan of $25,000 through its Impact Investing Fund, which directs donor investments to programs that provide a social benefit. Other major funders include Allegro Coffee, which has pledged $10,000 annually for three years and also provides wholesale beans and professional development, the Beanstalk Foundation and the Donnell-Kay Foundation.

Frances says Prodigy will eventually earn enough to sustain itself and its programs. Denver is becoming increasingly attuned to the benefits of impact entrepreneurship: In March, Impact Days showcased 100 of the region's most innovative social ventures. The Denver Foundation's Social Venture Partners group has seen membership grow each year. Youth-run programs, including the Osage Cafe in Denver Housing Authority's Mariposa development and Urban Peak's new youth-run thrift store in north Denver, suggest the marketplace is welcoming to businesses that serve the community.

"We know that lots of consumers, especially Millennials, care where their dollars go. Some percentage of their consumer decisions are based on the social dimension," Frances says. "And we also know that this will be a space for relationship building. You can come in here and enter a world that's different from your world, what you do day to day, and you can get something out of that. And that goes in reverse, too. The staff will participate in that exchange."

And, Frances notes again, the coffee will be really, really good.

Photos by Kara Pearson Gwinn.

This story was underwritten by The Denver Foundation.
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Read more articles by Laura Bond.

A former editor and staff writer with Westword, Laura Bond has written for Rolling StoneUSAA and Spin, among others. She is the principal of Laura Bond, Ink., a content and communications strategy firm that serves nonprofits across metro Denver.
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