When Cordell Lewis accepted an offer to manage a new Starbucks with a unique mission, he was told his role would be a little different.
The Ferguson store would be part of a national initiative to open Starbucks® stores in 15 diverse low- to medium-income communities across the United States in an effort to contribute to local economic development while reaching new customers. Jobs at the store would be a part of achieving the company’s goal to hire 100,000 Opportunity Youth – young people 16-24 who face systemic barriers to meaningful jobs and education. It would include a specially designed training space within the store to accommodate job-skills training, and would engage with local women- and minority-owned businesses, contributing to additional economic activity in the community. With this new model, the Ferguson Starbucks would demonstrate that businesses could, in fact, thrive in an underserved community by creating opportunities for all.
In short, the Ferguson Starbucks would aim to shine a new light on a city that found itself in the bright glare of reporting crews in 2014 after demonstrations erupted after the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, by a white police officer.
“Nothing like this had been done before, so we would be pioneers in developing these programs,” Lewis recalled. “I didn’t quite realize how much I would learn.”
One year later, Lewis and his team have checked off all the boxes. The store has quickly become a model for similar Starbucks cafes in East Baltimore; Phoenix; the Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York; and Englewood in Chicago’s Southside. Others will open in Birmingham, Ala.; Long Beach, Calif.; Miami and Seattle later this year.
An economic resurgence
“When we first opened, we didn’t know what to expect from a business standpoint,” said Lewis. “We really got out in the community and introduced ourselves and invited the community to engage in the new space.”
These efforts have paid off. The store is achieving and surpassing its sales targets and is part of an economic resurgence in Ferguson. According to the City of Ferguson, 41 other businesses have joined Starbucks in the past 12 months. While the local business economy isn’t yet back to the level before 2014, it is certainly headed that way.
“Starbucks has made a tremendous difference in our community providing job training, hosting community conversations and neighborhood group meetings, as well as providing volunteers from their team,” said Ferguson Mayor James Knowles III. “They do all this while providing a great product that is enjoyed by our residents. We look forward to their continued involvement and impact in our community.”
Natalie’s Cakes & More, a local business that suffered severe damage in the rioting that occurred after a grand jury declined to indict the police officer, is one of the minority-owned businesses that have benefited from the arrival of Starbucks in Ferguson. Partnering with local businesses like Natalie’s Cakes, as well as local minority-owned contracting firms for the construction of the store, contributed to over $10 million in indirect economic benefit over the last year.
Natalie’s products are now in over 30 Starbucks locations in Missouri and two in Illinois, and her workforce has grown to accommodate demand for items like her signature caramel cake.
“A lot of our customers and a lot of Starbucks customers like to call us Natalie’s Starbucks,” said Natalie DuBose, who opened her business in June 2014 while she was still working nights as a hotel van driver. “Just being connected with Starbucks, in general has made the growth of the company phenomenal, because whoever didn’t know Natalie’s knew Starbucks.”
A community space
A key feature of the Ferguson Starbucks is its community room, where the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis conducts job-skills training for young people. The multi-week program is based on Starbucks own customer service training and has graduated 30 young people since its launch in August 2016, nearly all of whom have found work locally.
“Hosting classes in the Starbucks training space gives me an opportunity to use real-life, spot-on experiences as I’m covering material,” said Monique Williams-Moore, a project director for the Urban League and facilitator of the classes. “The room we’re in, although closed in, is all windows, so I can point out something that’s going on at the cash register and ask questions or have conversations based on what’s going on in the store.
“The students have had an opportunity to get to know the store manager. They get to pick the brains of some of the baristas there, and the partners (employees) there really seem to enjoy making themselves available as sources of information for these young people.”
The community room is in high demand whenever it’s not occupied by the Urban League, according to Lewis. It hosts a variety of groups, ranging from school and church organizations to nonprofits.
“It’s a bright spot in the neighborhood because every time I walk in there are all kinds of groups and meetings utilizing the room,” said Linda Lipka, a Ferguson City Council member. “It’s created dialogue among all kinds of age groups who are cultivating communications. They now have a place to do that, which is Starbucks.”
A symbol for Ferguson
For Lewis, the biggest impact of the Ferguson Starbucks can be seen in the members of his team. The store employs 23 people. Four baristas have been promoted to shift supervisor and two shift managers transferred to nearby stores to become assistant store managers.
Adrienne Lemons, who has worked at the store since it opened, is “the epitome of what we’re trying to do,” said Lewis. “We want to support people through challenging times and help them overcome them.”
The 20-year-old barista’s father was recently incarcerated, so she cares for three younger sisters when she isn’t on the job or attending classes at nearby St. Louis Community College – Florissant Valley. At work, she enjoys the company of favorite customers, including a petite homeless woman named Jennifer who store partners first encountered at a volunteer event at the store’s location shortly after a groundbreaking ceremony. She comes by regularly early mornings to get out of the cold and enjoy a breakfast sandwich and cup of tea.
“We try to help her out,” Lemons said. “She’s not really talkative, but she’s thankful.
“Our store is kind of a symbol for Ferguson,” she said. “It helps us bring people together. Our job at Starbucks is to make our Ferguson community a happy place again.”
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