Its out-of-the-way location and lack of pedestrian traffic doomed the coffee stand at the Durango Public Library to financial failure under at least two commercial operators.
But as the Common Grounds Cafe, established a year ago as a training program for special-needs students at Durango High School, the coffee stand has been a roaring success. Student servers who have gained experience there landed paying jobs at Bread and at Starbucks, and the operation is turning a profit.
The work-experience program, sponsored by the library, Durango School District 9-R and San Juan BOCES marked its first anniversary Friday with a reception at the kiosk.
Brandy Loutherback from Pathways to Independence, the special-needs program for older 9-R students, did the honors.
“Welcome to the first anniversary of the Common Grounds Cafe,” she said before launching into the history of the project and crediting the organizers by name.
“I’ve liked to work here,” Loutherback said later. “But I want to be an author – write novels – when I graduate.”
She’ll be 21 in a couple of months.
Kira Valdez, who was serving coffee, is preparing to graduate from DHS. She started at the coffee cart in September. But she wants to work as a cashier in a movie theater.
“The program is a springboard into the community for the students,” said Robin Halloran, who teaches life skills at DHS. “It also introduces the public to programs serving special-needs students.”
Special-needs students ages 18 to 21 can continue in the Pathways to Independence program directed by Devon Parson. Pathways teaches skills needed for everyday living on one’s own.
Student servers take part to the extent of their ability in all phases of kiosk operation, said Edie Delin, a non-teaching employee at DHS who oversees daily coffee-stand activities. They engage in ordering, inventory, customer service, accounting, marketing and equipment upkeep, Delin said.
Once in the public eye, the students come out of the shadows, Halloran said.
“We don’t want them to be isolated,” she said.
Among the 11 servers are:
Grace Calvet, a senior at DHS who was among the servers who started a year ago. She aspires to a job as a veterinarian’s assistant.
Adrian Sandoval, who is deaf, has San Juan BOCES sign-language interpreter Tara Viosca assigned to him until he leaves the program or ages out at 21. Adrian, who needs little supervision, would like to work at Walmart because the many trips he’s made there with his mother has familiarized him with the store operations.
Rita May Hecker, who just got her driver’s license, works three shifts a week at Bread, where she does prep work for the bakers. She’d like to become a baker or a coffee-bar barista.
Interacting with the public builds self-confidence and a sense of self-worth in the coffee-bar workers and introduces customers to the world of special-needs people, Halloran said.
“We have more students wanting to work than we have slots,” Delin said. “We have 10 shifts a week at the coffee stand, which is open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday.”
An average of 220 customers a week buy their coffee, soft drinks, sandwiches and pastries at the kiosk, Delin said. The operation initially was subsidized with donated commodities by local businesses Bread, Desert Sun and Zuberfizz. But once it got on its feet, the kiosk has paid the going rate for food and supplies.
The kiosk, which is not charged rent and has no salaries to meet, is operating at profit, which raises the question of how to spend the money.
Parson said a committee will look at options, One could be another hands-on, life-skills endeavor for special-needs students, he said. The current hours of operation, which coincide with student schedules and more stringent Department of Labor standards involving food outlets that operate more than four hours, pretty much locks the kiosk into its current routine, he said.