October 15, 2019 News & Features » Cover Story

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Service with a Cause 

Nonprofit cafes are serving cold brew as well as the community.

click to enlarge Faith Walker, the manager of Front Porch Café.

Scott Elmquist

Faith Walker, the manager of Front Porch Café.

If there’s anything that could make the taste of a fresh cup of joe even better, it’s knowing that the money spent on your coffee goes to a good cause.

Two relatively new cafes in greater Richmond are hoping that customers come for the coffee and keep returning to support their work in the community.

The leaders behind Church Hill Activities & Tutoring spent so many hours in Richmond’s cafes drafting grant applications, coordinating volunteers and meeting donors that the idea of opening their own coffee shop became something of a running joke. Today, thanks to grants from Bon Secours and the Robins Foundation, the group operates the Front Porch Café in the Sarah Garland Jones Center in Richmond’s East End.

The cafe has a dual mission of fostering community and serving the city’s youth. After two years in business this October, the cafe’s bustle of customers belies the building’s past as a former auto shop that sat vacant for more than two decades. The space’s transformation into a thriving community gathering space is representative of the change the group wishes to bring about in North Church Hill.

“We want to make the Front Porch Café a space that people of all incomes can enjoy,” says Faith Walker, the shop’s manager.

To become a welcoming place that all East End residents enjoy, the cafe has priced certain items below market value so that residents who would normally feel shut out of the coffee shop experience can feel included here. Where else in the city could you buy a coffee and a fresh-baked muffin for $2? The Front Porch Café even offers buttons that more affluent patrons can buy for a dollar and leave in a jar on the counter to prepay for the food and coffee of those who can’t afford anything.

Also, the cafe uplifts the area’s youth by providing credentialing and work experience. Apart from Walker, all Front Porch’s staff are young adults 18 to 25; the lead baker is Kate Johnson and lead chef is Arley Arrington. Participants in the work program receive barista training from Blanchard’s, free serve-safe-food training from Parsley’s Kitchen next door and a steady paycheck which sometimes can make all the difference. No participant can stay more than two years. So far all the kids have burnished their résumés at the Front Porch and moved on to higher paying jobs as intended.

Guncotton Coffee and Gallery in Hopewell operates with a similar mission focused on a different clientele. Capital Area Partnership Uplifting People bought the former Broadway Motor Co. automobile showroom on the Wonder City’s main strip to serve as the home for its first foray into brick-and-mortar programming.

click to enlarge Ginny Gum is manager of Guncotton Coffee and Gallery, which she says is all about providing flexibility for employees. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Ginny Gum is manager of Guncotton Coffee and Gallery, which she says is all about providing flexibility for employees.

The partnership teamed up with Hopewell’s Social Services Department to support aspiring workers in the local Virginia Initiative for Employment not Welfare program. So far, participants have been single parents eager to work but too overwhelmed by the cost of child care or the unpredictability of their duties as caretakers. Whether it’s raising children or looking after a sickly parent or spouse, participants struggle to hold down jobs that offer little flexibility to take care of familial obligations.

That’s where Guncotton comes in. The coffee shop leverages the capacity of its three regular employees to provide participants with the flexibility and independence they need to work and begin to sort out alternate solutions to their caregiving duties.

“We get to bring people in and work around their life obstacles instead of punishing them for the struggles they’ve faced,” says cafe manager Ginny Gum. “The point of Guncotton is to provide people with some flexibility so they can build their own stability.”

After 12 weeks of mentoring and skills development at Guncotton, all the shop’s workers have moved on to full-time positions with higher pay. After moving to an administrative job at a real estate firm, the first participant is now in nursing school.

Gum revels in watching her workers rediscover their ability to dream again.

“It’s not just about us giving to them,” Gum says, “our program participants add a lot to our store and we couldn’t do this without them.”

Walker of the Front Porch Café similarly treasures the staff and customers that make their mission a success.

“I meet so many people at the Front Porch who have a need, whether its a young man who doesn’t have a suit for his eighth-grade graduation or a veteran in need of housing or someone who’s just lost a friend,” she says. “This place is about so much more than a cup of coffee. This space is for the community.”

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