By Emily Winslow, JVA Consulting
When you walk into Purple Door Coffee, you are immediately struck by the wonderful design aesthetic and welcoming ambiance. Co-manager Madison Chandler and one of the employees welcome you from the bar with glowing smiles and sincere pleasantries, despite the fact that the coffee shop is packed. It’s hard to imagine that Purple Door Coffee has only been in operation for the last two months, as it has already become a community staple and favorite spot among locals in the Five Points/Whittier area (29th St. and Welton).
Purple Door Coffee is a mission-driven business, started by Belay Enterprises and Dry Bones (a local nonprofit serving young people living on the streets) that exists to provide excellent coffee alongside job training, employment and community for youth and young adults working to exit life on the streets. This social enterprise provides opportunities to kids who have been deemed “unemployable” by society by teaching job skills that are universal to any job. The skills learned provide an opportunity for former “street kids” to work in today’s workplace.
Unlike most social enterprises in Denver, including cafes and other hospitality and food service businesses, which are primarily geared toward job training and development for older populations or specific demographics, like single mothers or individuals with disabilities, Purple Door focuses on the young. In addition to employing a niche population of homeless youth, Purple Door prides itself on creating a beautiful and welcoming space both visually, through architecture and design, and through the quality of its products and services. Purple Door Coffee’s friends and family have helped to further its mission and create this nurturing space by investing in ways that aren’t just financial, but by donating skills and other resources like website development, welding and general contracting to contribute to making the venture a success.
I was fortunate to be able sit down with Co-manager Mark Smesrud to learn more about his experience opening a social enterprise in Denver. In our conversation, Mark emphasized the importance of being mission driven, especially in a cause-oriented city like Denver, where people are very mindful of how they spend their money. For social entrepreneurs starting new businesses, Mark gave great advice on the importance of certainty and sustaining passion. “When we tell people about what we are doing, it sounds attractive, glamorous and sexy, but really on a daily basis it’s not. I mop a lot of floors, clean up a lot of spills and do a lot of dishes.”
Additionally, Mark emphasized the importance of planning:
“Planning is so crucial. We had the time and space to plan and lay out exactly what we would be doing. It wasn’t just a reactionary experience, it was very thought out. This has helped us have a lot of success very early on and things are going really well. We attribute that a lot to our abilities to plan long-term early on.”
While Purple Door Coffee’s doors have only been open for a few months, it has seen clear, but not necessarily conventional, markers of success. As Mark said, “Success for us is a tricky thing. Success for our employees is an everyday thing—when they show up for work when they haven’t been doing that for 18 to 25 years of their life or when they are opening bank accounts for the first time ever. It’s the little markers of success along the way that we need to stop and celebrate. It’s easy to miss those things, like celebrating the success of our employees and our customers.” Within the first three years of operation, Purple Door Coffee plans to move away from donations to become a self-sustaining nonprofit that can take care of all of its employees through earned-income strategies.
The future looks bright for Purple Door Coffee. It would eventually like to expand and diversify organically from operating just the coffee shop to also creating other complementary ventures, like a bakery and roastery, and mission-match businesses, such as dog grooming. The overall goal is to be able to help each individual employee become the person he or she wants to be. The vision is to create a wide variety of options for individuals to develop the skills they need to be successful.
As I was leaving Purple Door Coffee, Mark pointed out an older couple who volunteer with Purple Door Coffee’s parent organization, Dry Bones. These community members have a regular Thursday afternoon coffee date, but really were there to see the continued progress the employees are making, show their support and give everyone an encouraging hug.
Inspired and caffeinated, I will definitely be frequenting Purple Door Coffee. They are opened Monday through Saturday, 7am to 3pm.
Join the social enterprise movement! Start your journey by registering for JVA’s Are You Ready for Social Enterprise? training on June 26, or really ramp-up your social enterprise with our Social Enterprise Academy on September 16-20.