LEWISTON — Less than six months after opening its doors, Common Grounds Cafe plans to expand its offerings this summer.
The pay cafe in the heart of downtown’s Tree Streets neighborhood is a training ground for teens who want a taste of what it’s like to work at a corporate office. It’s also a gathering place for the community, as evidenced by a recent Saturday morning.
Damon Crouse is the program director at The Root Cellar, the cafe’s location at 89 Birch St. Together with his wife, Vicky, they came up with the idea to start the cafe.
“Rrealizing that Lewiston doesn’t really have that many cafes, especially those that are accessible to our local community to the Tree Streets, we wanted to offer something the community didn’t have,” Crouse explained, “and have a low barrier. … Our neighbors don’t have much income. They come to congregate and build relationships with each other in this space… (while the cafe provides) work experience for teens.
Crouse said he visited other cafes in the area and spoke with the owners about what it takes to run a cafe and the lessons they learned along the way. Teenagers selected to work at Common Grounds have created their own mission statement and goals, which are periodically reviewed to see if they are meeting those goals.
Being chosen to work there wasn’t just a matter of signing up. Of the 10 to 15 teenagers who work for Lew Crew, which is a lawn care and woodworking company linked to The Root Cellar, eight have expressed interest in working in the cafe. But Crouse wanted to start with just four teenagers. So he had an idea to make the selection process fair.
“Wwrote them all a 200 words essay on why we should hire them,” Crouse explained. “So I got four tries. So if they wrote an essay, they were hired. We kind of hired and reinforced our staff as needed.
Marie Dada and Nevaeh Warner, both 10th graders, were working the day the Sun Journal visited. Dada said she wanted to become a pediatrician and would pursue studies in business and health at the Regional Technical Center in Lewiston. Warner said she was accepted into the technical center’s culinary program.
Students Klein Dozolo and Mucyo Rayira work as a barista and cook respectively, but had sports commitments and could not work that day.
A steady stream of customers – regulars and newcomers alike – came and went from Common Grounds, some enjoying the freshly brewed coffee and breakfast sandwiches, others just dropping by to socialize. No one is ever asked to pay. Some have offered donations and tips, to help compensate those who cannot afford to pay. It’s part of the business model and it seems to work.
25 to 75 people walk through the doors on any given Saturday — the only day the cafe is open — and the business holds its own, breaking even each week, Crouse said, apart from some larger start-up expenses. which included the espresso machine and other expensive equipment.
The teenagers and Crouse meet weekly for two hours to review their progress. “Part of that time is just buying what we need the following the week. Part of that time we go over our goals, review our spending, watch incoming donations.
Crouse said the program is a success and the response from the community has encouraged them to keep going and hope it grows. “I think in the summer we will open up a few more days a week, because we are a little limited during the school year. We are hoping to get an old motorhome and turn it into a coffee trailer and be in different places on different days serving different areas of the community.”
Common Grounds is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information about the program or other The Root Cellar programs, call 207-782-3659 or online at https://therootcellar.org/.
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