Restaurant Reviews

It's a Grind in Deep Ellum is more than just a coffee shop, it's a sanctuary for second chances.

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."