It's a Grind is anything but.
It's a coffee shop, sure, and a franchised one at that, with a dizzying array of caffeinated choices, just like any other. There are lattes—whole milk and skim—frothy cappuccinos, eye-popping triple-shot espressos and baked goods that claim some modicum of nutrition but in the final analysis are, well, baked goods. To the uninitiated, it doesn't seem all that different from, say, a Starbucks, with its comfy wing-back chairs and WiFi interconnectedness and baristas who know your order by heart.
But on an early Tuesday morning in March, there are hints that this little coffee house tucked into the bottom corner of a new red-brick building in Deep Ellum offers something unusual. Artwork, for one: Larger-than-life portraits of music greats—Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Lena Horne—line the walls. Music, for another: the occasional lilting tones of a female singer over the sound system, crooning out a mournful version of "Brokedown Palace." But most of all, its employees: They wear their own clothes rather than the standard-issue uniforms that some feel stifle self-expression. And the waitstaff comes out from behind the counter to actually serve the coffee and chat up patrons, talking about the weather, their well-being, the latest book, movie or band they've read, seen or heard.
As with most weekdays, Stephen Barley is here by 5:30 a.m.; he's used to the city-still-asleep quiet that accompanies opening a coffee shop. This morning's crew also includes a dark-eyed, petite Jess, who wears blue-and-white flowered shorts and sandals and asks that her full name not be used because she is a political asylum-seeker from Colombia. Together they get things moving, running back and forth between the big, metal machines that hum and whir to life, and the floor, where they straighten tables and set out bundles of sugar packets and pitchers of cream.
Generally on weekdays, the morning rush begins around 7 o'clock for the caffeine-to-go-so-I-can-cope-with-work crowd. But Barley, wearing gray cords and a black rock band T, laments the slow trickle of customers and looks forward to September when the new DART Green Line will stop outside, just across the sidewalk, and It's a Grind will finally be discovered. But even then its secrets will not easily be revealed.
For what looks like a typical coffee shop is in fact an edgy social experiment, and a first for Dallas, one that seeks to create an ethical workplace open to an unusual subset of employees—asylum seekers, immigrants, victims of domestic violence, ex-convicts, reformed prostitutes, former drug users, pretty much anyone in dire need of a second chance.
Barley, himself a recovering barista from a five-and-a-half-year stint at Starbucks, says he was drawn to It's a Grind not so much because of its coffee—"It's better than Starbucks," he says—but because of its business model. The coffeehouse is the first entrepreneurial venture of the Demeter Project, a nonprofit dedicated to reinventing the American workplace by paying a living wage (almost twice the federal minimum) and providing full health benefits (no employee deductibles), reliable full-time hours (unexpected scheduling conflicts, no problem), a workplace where "respect and ethics are key words," and hiring practices that encourage employing job candidates with troubled backgrounds.
Cannon Flowers, co-founder and CEO of the Demeter Project, knows all about second chances and life's do-overs. For 23 years, he worked in the international finance department of Texas Instruments. "After 17 years, I realized I had to go do something else," Flowers told a meeting of the Deep Ellum Enrichment Project last November. "Working in corporate America wasn't working for me," he explained—and so Flowers began volunteering his time with the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, which provides pro bono legal services for those seeking asylum in this country—the victims of religious oppression, ethnic violence and political persecution in their home countries. It was there he met Serena Simmons Connelly, a social worker and the daughter of Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons. Together, they shared a common concern: Even though many asylum seekers had received sanctuary in the United States, they had trouble launching into their new lives. Many had arrived destitute and jobless, with little knowledge of the English language or American culture. Even if they did get jobs, they found that the meager salaries they earned in minimum-wage service positions weren't enough to make ends meet—especially if they had children or families to support. How to provide them with jobs that offered them a livable wage became an obsession, one that would give birth to the Demeter Project, which through It's a Grind became the vehicle to express their workplace ideology.
"You can go to any fast-food place, anywhere in the United States, and you can see people who are doing everything they can to maintain a living," Flowers explains. "We thought, 'Why don't we create an organization where we can pay them a living wage and provide them with basic health care?'" Flowers' work with the Human Rights Initiative led him to consider non-traditional employees—anyone from an ex-drug dealer to a Somali refugee. "We're mixing people who have no past [with] those who are attempting to rebuild their lives," Flowers explains. It's a challenge and a learning opportunity for people on both sides. "You all have to work together and figure out, regardless of what your history is, how to make this work."
Though Flowers emphasizes that his work at the Human Rights Initiative is wholly separate from the Demeter Project, his connections at the Human Rights Initiative, and to the world of other recovery programs like Grace Unlimited, which helps women readjust to life after incarceration, and New Friends New Life, a nonprofit to assist women transitioning out of prostitution, have produced a diverse and unique coffee-shop staff.
"A lot of people might not want to give them a second chance, and the Demeter Project has been willing to do that," Barley says. "Everybody's so excited to come to work because they have a place [where] they know they don't have to make something up about their past. They can be completely honest, [and] no one's going to look down on them."
Between the morning rush and the first-break-of-the-day coffee drinkers from nearby Baylor Hospital, Jess takes a break herself, sitting at one of It's a Grind's small round wooden tables. It's nothing unusual for the staff to sit with customers; Muna, who fled war-torn Mogadishu, Somalia, almost a decade ago, likes to tell stories of the pet monkey that she still misses. She smiles just thinking of him; Jess' story of her homeland, however, doesn't evoke a similar smile. Large, dangling earrings and colorful headbands give her an indie-chick look—a breezy vestige of the 22-year-old Colombian who, before her family's political ordeal that led to their flight to Texas, had a good job, a handsome boyfriend and a sweet life.
Jess grew up in Cali, the third-largest city in Colombia, the daughter of a man whose radio show focused on human rights and placed him at the crux of Colombia's long-standing conflict between leftist guerrilla organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and right-wing paramilitary groups, many of which had unofficial quid pro quo arrangements with the country's ruling Conservative Party.
By the 1990s, with both sides infiltrating the government and the police, the radio show became a soapbox for decrying the human rights abuses perpetrated by both sides, and a political liability to each. In the middle of 2004, during his radio show, Jess' father went too far, issuing accusations of corruption that implicated several powerful people in Cali. The reaction was swift and terrifying: The following day, two armed men staked out Jess' house, waiting for her father to return home in his car. But the car had broken down, and her father had come home early. By the time the assassins arrived, he was safely ensconced in his study, reading, but the absence of a car made them think he was on his way, and they waited, talking quietly about their plans to kill him.
A next-door neighbor heard everything, and after the assassins left, she hurried to warn Jess' father, who cautioned his family to be careful. Within days, one of her father's political allies was found dead with a hit list pinned to his chest and her father's name at the top of it. Jess and her family fled, leaving behind their possessions and using all their political connections to secure a visa for her father. Before a week had passed, he was in Texas, staying with relatives and working to get political asylum for himself and his family. But for Jess—who had followed in her father's footsteps by working for a politician with whom he'd been involved—the situation remained dangerous.
Soon after they'd fled their house in Cali, Jess' mother got a call from someone who refused to identify himself. The caller told her that his group first planned to kill the son of the director of the radio station where Jess' father had worked. And Jess was next on their list.
"[They] said they would kill me because I was my father's daughter," Jess recounts, struggling to keep her tears from falling on the coffee table. With that, the family left Cali for Bogotá, Colombia's largest city, where her pursuers would be less likely to find them. They took buses, Jess says, because flying would have left a paper trail. They moved every two weeks, or more frequently when necessary, exhausting their list of friends and family willing to help.
It took nine months before the family could secure the necessary visas to get to the United States, but with the help of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, where Jess' father had found refuge, Jess and her family left Colombia in June 2005.
Finally, the surreptitious midnight moves, the anonymous death threats and the pervasive fear were—to the extent that they can be—a thing of the past. It took Jess and her family almost a year to receive political asylum status—a designation similar to that of a refugee, which is a person unable to return to his or her home country because of political, religious, ethnic or other persecution. That status also provided her with the documents necessary to work here.
She took a job as a teaching assistant with the Richardson Independent School District—the pay $10 an hour—just enough to support herself and help her parents (with whom she lived) with necessities. But as her supervisors realized that she was not only bilingual, but also generous enough to do extra work, they started piling it on.
Because she was a Spanish-speaker, her workload increased far beyond what her original contract indicated, so at the beginning of her second year, she asked for a salary increase.
"[T]hey said no," says Jess, who speaks English with only a hint of an accent. "They were nice. They wanted me to keep working there; they needed someone bilingual." But that year, everything changed: Jess got pregnant; she knew she couldn't afford the school district's health insurance package—"My paycheck was too little," she says—and when her baby boy was born in March 2008, she took a month off for maternity leave. But the district didn't pay her during that month, and when a doctor diagnosed her with postpartum depression and ordered her to stay home for one more week, Jess' money concerns grew. She went back to work until school let out for the summer and made up her mind to find a new job.
"I was tired, to be honest," she says, shaking her head, her long, black ponytail swaying behind her. "Physically, I wasn't good. I was exhausted." After taking a month off to recover, Jess went to the offices of the Human Rights Initiative to see if her case workers knew of any job openings. Her last paycheck from the school district had come in July, and already, with a baby who was often sick, money was getting tight. When she learned that It's a Grind was opening that November, Jess leapt at the opportunity—particularly because of the health benefits, but also because of the philosophy behind it.
"When they told me about the Demeter Project, I wanted to be part of that," she says. "My father was the kind of person that always worked for people and fought for people, so that is in my blood."
At about the time Jess was fleeing death squads in Colombia, Cannon Flowers, thousands of miles away in Dallas, had just left corporate America to become the chief operating officer (he's now the CEO) of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas. While the nonprofit provided free legal aid to asylum seekers and helped them find housing, clothing and food, they needed jobs to restart their lives—jobs that paid a decent wage. Shortly after joining the Human Rights Initiative, Flowers, a pale, sprite-like 50-year-old with ice-blue eyes and a soft, twangy voice, started researching the concept of a living wage.
The more research he did, the more Flowers realized that the types of jobs some of his clients were securing also attracted a different type of employee—those who simply enjoyed the day-to-day interaction of a service industry job. But neither group seemed able to make ends meet in the kind of places—coffee shops, fast-food joints, bookstores and sit-down chain restaurants—for which they were qualified.
A question plagued Flowers: "How do we [help] people integrate into the workplace, plus create an environment where [they] can make a living, support their family and have health care?" He decided that if that ideal combination of livable wages and open-minded hiring policies didn't exist, he would just create it. From scratch. Like a cup of home-roasted coffee.
From the start, Flowers saw that a coffee shop was not only one of the simplest options for the Demeter Project's first venture—the inventory (coffee, baked goods, milk) and training requirements were pretty basic—but also one that could have a wide social impact, from being a meet-and-greet place for local residents and hospital workers to drawing in new faces for community meetings, children's events and live music on the weekends.
In 2007, Flowers met with the California-based owners of It's a Grind, who shared his enthusiasm for creating special workplaces. He says they seemed excited about the Demeter Project—named, somewhat obscurely, for the Greek goddess of fertility and agriculture. ("We chose Demeter as our symbol because we recognize the cyclical nature of life and desire a workplace that is flexible enough to embrace its employees through their ups and downs," the Demeter Project's Web site explains.)
Last fall, Flowers and Serena Simmons Connelly, who was also a co-founder of the Human Rights Initiative of North Texas, conducted interviews with the pool of prospective employees, and they ended up with 21 people from all walks of life. Flowers set their wages squarely between the Dallas County living wage for one single adult ($8.88 per hour) and one adult with one child ($17.93 per hour). Those values came from the Living Wage Calculator, an online tool developed by the head of MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Dr. Amy Glasmeier, who has spent years researching the relationship between poverty, economic security and the concept of a living wage. The calculator takes into account monthly food, child care, medical, housing, transportation and miscellaneous costs, and then estimates living wages for different types of families: In Dallas County, for example, two adults and two children require $28.07 an hour to live.
Glasmeier acknowledges that from an employer's perspective, paying a living wage isn't cheap. But she says the benefits—loyalty, productivity and the accumulation of job-specific knowledge and skills—while often less quantifiable, outweigh the costs.
"Americans are extremely hard-working, and if an employer is looking out for their best interest, they'll show up in a hurricane," Glasmeier says. There's also the productivity effect—"Presumably, as people get paid more money, they do a better job," she explains.
Dallas doesn't have its own minimum wage—the federal minimum, set to increase to $7.25 later this month, is the only wage floor applied here—but since the 1990s, when the concept of a "living wage" became a point of social activism, several cities around the country have experimented with setting their own city- or county-wide wage floors. One of the faults in the federal minimum wage, according to Glasmeier, is its definition of a poverty threshold, which is little more than "a very basic food budget." There's nothing extra for driving to work, paying rent, seeing a doctor or paying for child care.
A living wage, on the other hand, is designed to help people live above that threshold, not on it. "The intent is that the person can...live without fear of economic insecurity," Glasmeier explains. "That's really what it's about."
But paying a living wage doesn't equal economic prosperity. Glasmeier admits that many service-industry workers, living wage or not, may still not be able to afford a new car, a house or even health insurance (which is part of why the Demeter Project seeks to include at least one of those in its compensation package). Critics of a living wage often cite the additional personnel costs; indeed, even the fear of increasing costs can be enough to dissuade managers from taking the leap.
Flowers says that after two years of research, he couldn't find a single business, large or small, that was doing what he wanted to do. "It goes back to just financial feasibility," he says with a shrug. "We've spent $600,000 on building this store. When you think about pumping another $600,000 into it [for operating costs]...That's huge."
The Demeter Project, he admits, is blessed to have the financial backing of its two investors—himself and Simmons Connelly—both of whom have committed to paying for It's a Grind's operating costs for the first two years. "A lot of people would like to do this—you know, be able to pay people what they're worth. Since we've got the financial ability to do it, we're going to do it," Flowers says.
Other critics fear that paying employees more would result in job cuts or higher costs for consumers, but several studies rebut those claims. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Labor Research and Education, reported in 2007 that an increase in the minimum wage paid by big-box stores like Walmart from $7-$8 to $10 an hour "would greatly boost the well-being of its low-income workers with little financial impact on most shoppers."
But absent a government-mandated living wage, Glasmeier feels the responsibility for ethical compensation will fall to small businesses like It's a Grind. Not only will a coffee shop that is founded on respect and decent pay attract employees instilled with loyalty for their job, she says, but "People who believe in the ethic of living wages will come and buy their coffee there!"
It's a Grind has its own energy spikes. Sleepy dawns give way to morning rush hours, late afternoons and evenings ebb and flow between slow and go. Much depends on the caffeinated needs of their customer base—neighbors, students, writers, medical personnel and business types, looking for cups of edgy persistence, a pause from their day or an Internet connection.
"It's not your typical coffee shop. It's real private and professional, but it's also very relaxing. The pace is just a different pace here," says Deep Ellum developer Barry Annino, taking a quick sip of coffee. "You have a tendency while you're in here to look out the window. The people here are relaxed."
Open mic nights and live music events spice things up. So too did Debra Bales, a walking reservoir of frenetic energy.
Bales has big, blue eyes, a nervous-seeming smile, and a rapid gait that conveys a boundless energy that belies her 47 years. At a slow moment on a weekday afternoon in April, Bales sits at a wooden table, her hands dancing restlessly across the tabletop while she speaks.
Nothing Bales has done follows a coherent trajectory, and her story does the same, leaping between distant events and recent feelings—redemption, constancy, peace. She can name the date she finished training and started work at It's a Grind—November 16, 2008—because she says she's been changed by the experience of getting a second chance and becoming, as she repeats over and over, "a normal person."
"I was married and lived a normal life for a long time," Bales says, choosing her words carefully. But then, about 10 years ago, "I guess I went to the other side of the tracks." One night she went out dancing with a Cuban man and realized her life was, as she puts it now, "boring." She felt she was doing the lion's share of raising her two boys, and she wanted her husband to "step up." What she also wanted was freedom, and a change of pace from the grind of soccer practice and cooking dinner and being a stereotypical good wife and mother. What she got was money from a divorce settlement and the craziest three years of her life.
In her adventure to the "other side," Bales says she experimented with cocaine, heroin and finally crack because, "it was romantic—these houses with no electricity, just candlelight, and people smoking together." In order to support her crack habit, she stole clothing and accessories from department stores—Marshall's, Dillard's, Kohl's—and resold her wares on her own small-time black market. When word got out about her new business venture, people put in orders. Bales recalls one woman who "wanted to buy leather jackets for everyone in her family—and it was a big family!"
Bales didn't look the part of the thief—she carried the trappings of her former life, from a Gucci bag to nice high heels, and her candid demeanor didn't hurt either. She says she always acted confident, hardly batting an eye when clerks asked her if she needed help as she waltzed out of places carrying TVs or cases of beer.
"If I saw some shoes I liked better than the ones I had on, I'd take them," Bales says with a shrug—put them right on her feet and walk away.
Things started to get a little rougher, though, when in 2006 she served her first stint in the Dawson State Jail in Dallas for stealing her ex-husband's Rolex. A string of misdemeanors kept her in jail over Christmas and New Year's of 2007; once she got out, she resolved to stop stealing. But she fell back in with the same crowd, spending nights in freezing crack houses where people still knew her. When a request for an item from Walmart came her way, she figured one more gig wouldn't hurt. It only took one, though, to land her back in Dawson—this time for nine months.
During her time behind bars, she volunteered as a Peer Educator for Texas Hope Literacy Inc., a program designed to help incarcerated men and women learn to read and get their GEDs under the tutelage of their fellow inmates. After her release, Bales went to Grace Unlimited, a nonprofit geared toward helping female inmates transition to life on the outside. A board member recommended her to one of the assistant managers at It's a Grind.
Bales threw herself into learning the coffee business and in March was promoted to lead barista. For Bales, It's a Grind represented not only a second chance at "normalcy," but also a community where she could be herself.
"We just come from all different kinds of backgrounds," Bales told the Observer in April. Sometimes she would take a short break out back with another employee who had a rough time, Bales said, and they would swap stories about the past. "Everybody has problems—hopefully not all at the same time!"
It's hard to envision that such a frank, funny woman could have lived such a troubled life. But that impression changes after learning that she left her job at It's a Grind this June, that her phone has been disconnected, her whereabouts are unknown and some fellow staffers are fearful she has returned to the life she left behind.
Barista Stephen Barley remains convinced his problems are far behind him. He grew up in a strict Pentecostal family. When he was 12, he moved to the Plano area, and by the time he was a teenager had successfully persuaded his mother to let him attend a public high school. Barley says he loved it—but since he'd lived such a sheltered life until then, he "started doing everything you can imagine that I shouldn't have been doing."
Trouble came in the form of drugs, parties and, when he was 18, a pregnant girlfriend. Because of his family's beliefs, Barley had only one option: marriage. By 19, he was married with a daughter. Two years later, his wife gave birth to twin boys.
"When I look back on it now, I think there's so many things that I could've done differently—but I was so young," Barley says. He and his wife stayed together for four years, until he conquered his fear of coming out as a gay man. His family's fundamental religious views made him worry that he'd become a pariah—yet when he "'fessed up" to his wife, he recalls her saying, '''I was wondering when you were going to come and tell me!'" After that, he moved around, eventually settling back in Dallas to be near his children, who now are 19 and 21.
Aside from being a little jaded with his whole Starbucks experience, Barley wasn't looking for a second chance when he began work at It's a Grind. "I love this place," he says. "I mean, after five and a half years at Starbucks, [It's a Grind] started me out at a better rate! They asked me what I was making, and they added a little extra onto that. And I get my insurance for free—where are you gonna get that?" Even though Starbucks is known for its good benefits, Barley says, most coffee shops don't pay over $7 or $8 an hour; here, it averages around $12.
In addition to a living wage, Barley credits his job with giving him a new outlook on life, even though he didn't think he needed one.
"I used to have a bad attitude toward homeless people, or people having problems with drugs," Barley explains. "I didn't have a whole lot of sympathy for it. I was like a lot of people: 'They're bothering me,' 'Why don't they get a job,' that whole attitude. But working here has completely changed my whole thought process," Barley says, his eyes widening as he makes his point. "Now I don't just walk past a homeless person; I take my time and find out a little bit about why they're there, what's going on with them, maybe how I can help them," he says.
Barley is also working with Flowers to find a nonprofit he wants to support—a small-scale community reinvestment project of his own. His ideas center around helping small, struggling nonprofit startups build thrift stores or other sources of sustainable income to support themselves—a sort of Demeter Project, writ small. Investing in its employees who, in turn, invest in its mission is the whole point of the Demeter Project. That, and staying in business.
Flowers' business training told him that a regular coffee house should be making 20 to 30 percent profit, but the way It's a Grind was structured, that seemed impossible, certainly at first. Instead he'd bank on the fringe benefits of having a happier, more invested staff. "Then we could take 3 to 5 percent profits and invest that into care-based organizations or replicate the model." It's like a nonprofit organization that runs on its own profits rather than donations—and passes its ethic on, through its employees, to other nonprofits. "We just see it as an investment in the community," Flowers says.
Flowers admits he's not expecting profits for the first two years, and in late May, he told the Observer he hasn't reached his income goal. "I do think it's going to work," he says. "I know we're not going to get rich."
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He also knows he could pull heartstrings with the story of Demeter Project, and the fact that It's a Grind is employing former refugees and lifting up people from all walks of life—but as a businessman, he's adamant that It's a Grind be seen as a real coffee shop and a true test of whether paying a living wage is actually something small businesses can do.
"I'm very sensitive to the cheese factor," Flowers explains. "We are trying to change the world. We're dead serious with what we're doing here, and I don't really want it to be an emotional thing."
No one can tell yet whether paying a living wage in Dallas, in a coffee shop, during a recession, is going to work.
"Give me two years!" Flowers shouts suddenly, banging the table with his fist for emphasis. By then, Flowers says he'll have a clear idea of whether or not this actually works—this idea of promoting an ethical workplace by paying a living wage. Then "we can settle this argument once and for all."