New Directions. Liz W. James MJ

James Magnus-Johnston and Liz Wolff at New Directions’ Cafe 6

Coffee.  You’d think the process of making a great cup of coffee is easy. Hot water, coffee grounds, and mix. It isn’t.  If you’ve ever drank vending machine coffee, like I have, you would know. There’s a big difference between really good and really bad coffee, with the former being, as Liz Wolff of New Direction describes it, “both a science and an art.” 


Finding that balance to make a great cup of coffee was the issue Liz and the team at New Directions was struggling with. Their social enterprise, Cafe 6, a training and employment program for youth facing barriers to employment, was already operating a catering business but they saw an opportunity to expand and increase their business by selling coffee to the 200 people that work in the New Directions office building.  To help, Spark matched them with someone who knows how to make a really good cup of coffee, James Magnus-Johnston.


James, a co-owner of Fools and Horses, was no stranger to community economic development strategies.  His triple bottom line approach to business along with Fools’ value of inclusion and worker ownership aligned well with Cafe 6’s mission and vision.  When approached about the project, James saw it as a problem to work through.  To him, New Directions’ coffee service had two constraints towards achieving a consistent product: “a captive customer base in the form of the large New Directions building, and the enterprise is working to employ a very specific group of people”


But what does a captive customer base look like if, as James says, “coffee is a subjective thing and everyone has these strong attachments to it”?  A textbook example of this problem is our own Spark office.  For a three person team we have three different coffee preferences: latte, americano, and one vending machine-like coffee.  Our staff is small so understanding and working with each other’s preferences is easy, a 200 person office building is another challenge altogether. Market research needed to be done.  So, in collaboration with James, New Directions created a simple survey that asked the buildings tenants about their coffee habits. The response was huge and the feedback informed Liz and her team of their “next step in terms of what people were willing to pay, what people wanted from the cafe in terms of our ability and what types of coffee they wanted.”


The next step was procurement. James connected Liz to a local distributor that worked with the team to choose the best products. Need and ability were at the forefront in their decision making, after all “the youth New Directions is working with, are going to be using this equipment.  [New Directions] wanted machines to deliver great coffee, but it also had to fit their operation and their participants.”  So with careful consideration, and the offer for proper training, equipment including grinders, coffee makers, and thermoses as well as beans were chosen and will be ordered in the near future.  


For the 200 people working in the building, an in-house cafe that makes a great cup of coffee is a welcomed addition to the work routine.  But the success of the Spark match between James Magnus-Johnston and New Directors will have a larger, more significant impact than staff work perks.  Rather, Cafe 6 will be an opportunity for its participants with various social and economic barriers to receive necessary skills and support.  It will be a space where “young people who might not make it without being involved in a social enterprise will first of all attach somewhere where they know they will be cared about and loved, where some skill development will take place, that will perhaps allow them to transfer out into the community.”  Liz has also witnessed that Cafe 6 and Genesis, New Directions’ construction related social enterprise, has shown to help young parents in the program, noting that “they are parenting different[ly], because they are working men and women.”


With a December 1st launch date, Liz is already thinking about the future of Cafe 6. She hopes to see it on the same upward trajectory as Genesis, by expanding “into frozen dinners and catering in such a way that we’d be in another building- mass producing meals and employing the young people on a full time basis.”  For now, however, Cafe 6 and its burgeoning coffee enterprise is already a success with the organization’s mission to provide the training and experience needed for employment.  As for a benefit to the larger community?  Well, they gain “tax paying citizens, and employed individuals”, and not to mention a great cup of coffee.  


Spark is interested in facilitating industry specific matches between social enterprises and Chamber members, such as Fools and Horses, with the goal of connecting nonprofits with the short-term expertise they need to achieve their social goals. The impact this match, as well as BUILD’s, has had on the organization and its participants has been demonstrable with the increase in skills training and job creation. To read James Magnus-Johnston’s full interview in which he details his experience as a Spark volunteer please click here