Ever since Starbucks established a model for the modern coffee shop, hand-crafted lattes, Americanos and cappuccinos have been ubiquitous. Now, a handful of market-minded Denver do-gooders are putting something new on the menu: social change.
Garden Autism Services of Colorado plans to expand its Dirt Coffee truck into a full-service shop able to employ significantly more young adults affected by autism spectrum disorders. Sometime this year, 8th Day Coffee hopes to start employing at-risk women at a new coffee shop in Capitol Hill or the Golden Triangle.
They would be joining a mission-driven business model also championed by Purple Door Coffee, the Five Points mainstay that has been providing jobs for at-risk and homeless youth since April 2013.
So why is it that these groups are grafting their missions onto the coffee shop template rather than a craft brewery or one of Colorado’s other booming business sectors?
Kristen Lanning, executive director and co-founder of the U.S. branch of 8th Day Coffee, said coffee shops are safe spaces that provide the sense of community that people need when they are coming out of traumatic situations.
“[They] are places people want to go to be around other people, but it’s not loud or busy,” she explained. “Business people meet there. People go on first dates there. Community happens at a coffee shop.”
Three years ago, Lanning was living in India. She met an entrepreneur who was opening a coffee shop to provide employment for women coming out of the local sex trade. After she moved back to the U.S. and got married, she and her husband Mark Lanning decided to partner with the entrepreneur to bring 8th Day Coffee to Denver.
“Our focus is a little broader than the [India] one,” Kristen Lanning said. “The mission here in Denver is to empower women who come from marginalized situations. That might be teen and single mothers or survivors of domestic and sexual violence, including human trafficking.”
According to the Human Trafficking Center, Denver is a “hub for many industries where trafficking has been found.” Lanning said a confluence of factors, such as the Denver International Airport and the intersection of major highways, makes the Colorado capital one of the worst cities in America for human trafficking.
The goal is for 8th Day Coffee to provide a two-year bridge program for women and girls coming out of more programs that offer wrap-around services, such as Florence Crittenton Services and the Girls Athletic Leadership School of Denver.
“The first year is the apprenticeship,” Lanning said. “Then they move into the empowerment phase, mentoring a first-year fellow and taking on a leadership role. They would then graduate with experience to put on a resume.”
The community aspect of a coffee shop also lends itself to the advocacy side of 8th Day’s mission.
“We believe in the coffee shop model because it allows women to interact with society in a safe environment and because it will hopefully allow our customers to be impacted by what we are doing,” she said.
The Lannings were hoping to take over an existing coffee house space at 955 Bannock St., but they were outbid. They are now in talks to buy one of two nearby coffee shops, which would allow them to retain key features like espresso machines and liquor licenses.
Dirt Coffee, which opened as a coffee truck in 2013, aims to create a similar community hub and transitional space, but for people with autism.
“Ever since we founded Garden [Autism Services] in 2010, we saw a lot of adults that wanted to work, but didn’t have the skills,” said founder and executive director Lauren Burgess. “We worked with them to develop the skills, but we found that employers still weren’t willing to hire them.”
The coffee shop model offers other advantages to mission-oriented organizations like Dirt and 8th Day. For one, there’s a relatively low barrier to entry.
Dirt raised $100,000 to open its first brick-and-mortar location at 5767 S. Rapp St. in downtown Littleton this year. That’s a tiny fraction of the $1 million-plus they would have needed to open, say, a craft brewery.
“On top of that, it’s a sustainable business model,” Burgess said. “We raised funds to open the shop, but the sales will make it self-sustainable, just like with our truck.”
It’s also easier to compete in the coffee shop landscape.
The Dirt truck sources its beans from local roasters Kaladi Coffee Roasters and Coda Coffee Co., and the Dirt cafe will exclusively buy from Denver’s own Huckleberry Roasters. Furthermore, Burgess and all the Dirt staff are trained baristas.
“We consider ourselves players in Denver’s craft coffee culture,” she said.
“Most people will come in [the shop] not even realizing we have the mission,” Burgess added. “But we hope it’s why they return.”