Cafe via Roma: A training ground for welfare recipients

Joann Dent likes to greet customers with an infectious smile and a cheery voice. A newly appointed manager of Cafe via Roma, she does everything from staff training, bookkeeping, food making to store cleaning. To her, the coffee shop is not just a business but also a family that helped and shaped her.

Situated in the south side of Missouri River and a block from the Missouri State Capitol, Cafe via Roma is a quaint European-style coffee shop in northern Jefferson City and a social enterprise owned by non-profit Central Missouri Community Action (CMCA).

When Dent joined the welfare program three years ago, she couldn’t even imagine living without the benefits. Now, 26, with a 3-year-old son, she can’t think of anything better than earning a living on her own.

Born in East St. Louis, Illinois, Dent moved to Jefferson City to be with her working mother and sister when she was 21. She signed up for TANF after she gave birth to her son Christian in early 2013. Through the Missouri Work Assistance program run by CMCA, she received soft skills training, attended resume writing workshops, took a short-term nurse assistant class, and volunteered for a year at Cafe via Roma.

She was a standout employee during her time volunteering at Cafe via Roma, and two months ago, she was promoted from a volunteer to be the manager of the cafe.

“Before I got on the work assistance program, I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I can’t work too many hours. I can’t live without my food stamp and TANF money,'” Dent said. “Now, I’m like, ‘I don’t care about the food stamp. I can pay myself.'”

A social enterprise and job-training lab

The idea of purchasing a coffee shop was driven by CMCA’s ambition to seek more revenue streams.

“As any business might do, we looked at where our revenues come from to operate our program,” said Darin Preis, executive director of CMCA. “The idea was we would create a business and generate profits that we can put into our program. At the same time, it can be used to train people in the Missouri Work Assistance program.”

After three years of planning, CMCA purchased the coffee shop in November 2014 for $65,000.

Initially, CMCA encouraged work assistance program participants to work as volunteers and count volunteer hours towards required work activity hours. Dent was one of the first volunteers working there.

Over the next 15 months, four managers came and left. When the last one left, Dent stepped up and offered to take the management position.

“Joann called me at home (one) evening, saying, ‘I think I can do this. I think I’m ready to step up and give it a shot,'” Preis recalled. “I thought, ‘Gosh, among all the people I want to give a shot to, this is a perfect example.'”

Preis emphasized that the coffee shop isn’t just a for-profit enterprise, but also a lab for on-the-job training.

“It’s really important to know that a lot of people in the (Missouri Work Assistance) program, the biggest skill set they need to work on is soft skills such as customer service, customer interaction, appropriate attire, expectations of employers, etc,” he said. “We just finished building a training curriculum that we are going to specifically apply to our cafe staff to really bulk up the training component…because ultimately, whenever they are done working with the cafe, we want them to be hirable and successful wherever they go next.”

Although the business hasn’t been easy, and the profit margin has been slim, CMCA managed to hire five employees, including Dent. As a manager, Dent is responsible for teaching staff everything from food- and drink-making to catering and customer services. She and former employees created cheat sheets with detailed recipes and step-by-step instructions.

Rebecca Schuessler, 24, signed up for TANF and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, in November 2014 when her daughter was born. Schuessler joined the Missouri Work Assistance program last November and has worked at Cafe via Roma ever since. Now, paid $8 per hour as a permanent employee, she earns way more than the baseline requirement for welfare participants.

“I like working here,” she said. “The best parts are the homy atmosphere and the customers.”

Dent just moved into a house with two bedrooms. “This is my first time living in a house,” she said.

She enjoys working at the cafe and is excited about the future.

“I like coming in everyday and interacting with customers,” she said, “and sometimes I just go outside and greet people walking by.”

From a business perspective, Preis plans to put more efforts into marketing the coffee shop.

“When we tell people about (the coffee shop), their responses are very positive,” he said. “They think it’s smart of us to try that. It interests them to check out the cafe. We need more of that.”

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