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Coffee With A Purpose: Richmond Cafe Trains And Hires Neighborhood Youth

The Front Porch Cafe's Diamond Wright, Store Manager Tiffany Granell and Tiana Mitchell.
The Front Porch Cafe's Diamond Wright, Store Manager Tiffany Granell and Tiana Mitchell. Located on Nine Mile Road and 25th Street, the cafe is a project of the non-profit CHAT and was founded with a mission to provide jobs and workforce development to Church Hill teens. Photo: Catherine Komp / WCVE News

A new coffee shop recently opened in Richmond’s Church Hill neighborhood. But it doesn’t just serve steaming beverages and savory quiche. This neighborhood gathering spot opened to provide job experience for youth in the community. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.


Inside the Front Porch Cafe, baristas prepare mochas and lattes and customers are tempted by house-made quiche, muffins and lemon bars.

Customer: Hi, how you doing? What kind of tea do you have?

This is 17-year-old Tiana Mitchell’s first job.

Tiana Mitchell: The first couple days, I was really nervous. But it was easy-going, the staff is nice here, everyone is family-like. It made me comfortable as soon as I came in here.

The coffee shop is located in the former Parsley's gas station on Nine Mile Road and 25th Street, and in the Bon Secours Healthy Living Center. It’s the newest workforce development initiative of CHAT, Church Hill Activities and Tutoring. Jonathan Chan is CHAT’s Chief Development Officer.

Jonathan Chan: It’s a critical need in this part of the neighborhood, to have a place where young people, teens and young adults, can find a job, can have friends who are able to get this kind of work.

The partnership with Bon Secours and the Robins Foundation seeks to address some of the inequities in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Church Hill. While Richmond’s poverty rate is about 25%, it rises to more than 60% in census tracts surrounding the cafe. In tracts that include public housing communities, unemployment for young adults ages 20-24 can be as high as 57%, compared to 15% citywide. In areas of concentrated poverty like this, Chan says youth don’t have the same access to business owners and managers who might help open doors.

Chan: And so those kinds of friends and family networks that for a lot of us who come from middle or upper class backgrounds, helped us get our first part-time or summer job, those don’t exist.

Cynthia Newbille: It is a challenge across the city, it's a challenge in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Councilmember Cynthia Newbille grew up in Whitcomb Court. Her first job was in the neighborhood.

Newbille: I was working at a senior center just helping out.

Newbille got that position through Richmond Community Action Program, which formed in the 1960s and is now called CAP UP, Capital Area Partnership Uplifting People, Inc.

Newbille: I ran across a article, they took pictures of the kids that summer in the different work sites, and so I was combing a seniors hair, and it was just a great opportunity to a work and earn dollars, but also to be in a place where you could be supportive of our elders you now, so it was pretty cool.

She says two big challenges residents face are a lack of jobs and transportation. Some seek work in Henrico, but getting there can be a challenge. From Creighton Court, it’s a 10 minute commute by car to nearby retailers and restaurants at White Oak Village. By bus, you’d need to first walk a half mile, then take a 30 minute ride. If you work weekends, you’re out of luck - there is no service.

Chan: The bus does run through this part of the neighborhood, but it’s not easy to find a good bus route that’s going to get you to where the jobs are. Obviously the folks working on public transit and the teams working on the Pulse BRT, they looked at this issue and it’s very clear, the vast majority of jobs, hourly and accessible jobs, for teens, young people, people from a low-income background, they aren’t anywhere near the public transportation lines.

Kendall Irving: My name’s Kendall Irving. I grew up in this neighborhood, I was in the CHAT program until about 6th grade and then I  moved down to the western side of Henrico.

Kendall Irving used to take an Uber to get to work in Short Pump. Now he’s employed a the Front Porch Cafe, just two blocks away from home.

Kendall: I just recently moved back to the neighborhood and learned about the cafe being open and it seemed like a really cool thing to be a part of, something that’s going to make the community better is always a fantastic thing to be a part of.

Front Porch Cafe currently employs three teens and three young adults. With tips, the wages for the part-time jobs are between $9-$13 an hour. CHAT also employs about 10 more youth in two other small businesses, Nehemiah's woodworking workshop and On Point screen prints. Chris Whiting is the group’s work leadership director.

Chris Whiting: We really try to help kids develop their passions and articulate what they enjoy most and what they don’t enjoy. Even as adults we have that problem, figuring out what we’re most passionate about and sticking to that. We find that it’s important to develop that in our programs with teens and help them to understand what do they enjoy, what do they want to pursue and really become more confident that they can make a living as a carpenter or make a living as an artist and just to pursue those things.

Neighborhood youth will soon have more opportunities. Construction has started on the long-awaited grocery store, expected to open later this year. The development, financed by Steve and Kathie Markel and run by former Feedmore executive Norm Gold, will include other retail spaces and apartments. Across the street J. Sargeant Reynolds is building a new culinary arts school. The community college will double its capacity for enrollment, ⅓ of which currently lives in Richmond’s East End. The school will also provide a shuttle to its downton campus. Councilmember Newbille is excited about the Front Porch Cafe, which she calls “coffee with a purpose” and the other new investment, but says the city and local businesses must continue their efforts to create living wage jobs.

Newbille: It doesn't happen overnight, but it is a concerted, strategic and intentional effort to build a healthier community. Health physical, health economic, health social and across the domains.

Pointing to area’s craft breweries and the science that takes place inside, Newbille says there’s also opportunities to increase internships for young adults.

Newbille: I think it is incumbent upon us to make sure that we are thoughtful and intentional about engaging our business partners. I think we don't think about it enough in that way; we think about the employment side, but I don't know that we think about the internship opportunities, and I think that's on us.

Back at the Front Porch Cafe, Tiana Mitchell assesses her first few months at her very first job. She says she’s developing hard and soft skills, from steaming milk for lattes to interacting with customers. And she has some advice for other youth entering the workforce.

Mitchell: Everyone’s learning, it’s a new job, try to push through anything that you feel is going bad. You’re probably not doing it that bad, you’re just learning. And just ask questions, ask a lot of questions when you feel that you’re lost, because if you don’t ask questions, you won’t learn anything.

The Front Porch Cafe isn’t an ordinary coffee shop. Three years in the making, CHAT’s Jonathan Chan says they prioritized involving the community in everything from what the space should look like, to what they wanted on the menu, like simple sandwiches, coffee at an affordable price. Portraits of longtime residents line the tall brick walls. Even the name was the community’s idea.

Chan: We need places where everybody is welcome, where the flourishing of this business isn’t tied to the flourishing of just one particular demographic in this neighborhood. But to say this is a place that’s open to everybody, so we need to make aesthetic choices, culture choices, value choices as we open up this business that really reflect that.

Chan says while they hope to add more staff soon, they know this project is just part of the solution. He hopes others see their work - training and employing neighborhood youth - as a model.

Chan: We need folks that are willing to take a risk for the common good, willing to take a risk for everybody. We hope and we welcome that, if people want to come by and solicit advice, I don't know if we have particular expertise yet, but we’ve got lessons learned, mistakes that we’ve made and we can help folks figure out what does it look like to open a business that serves everybody. We need more.

Another new effort that may help residents across Richmond is the Living Wage Certification initiative. A partnership between the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and the City’s Office of Community Wealth Building, the voluntary program will identify and highlight companies paying between $11 and $16 an hour. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.