Coffee with a Conscience
Street Bean brews opportunities for street-involved youth to reclaim their lives, one cup at a time.
STORY BY HALEY SHAPLEY
PHOTOS BY AMBER FOUTS
On the surface, Street Bean looks like any other Seattle coffee shop, but there’s something extra special brewing here — and it isn’t just java.
Every weekday morning, a construction worker in Belltown bypasses the free coffee available at the job site, and instead crosses the street to pay for an Americano from Street Bean Coffee Roasters. He’s not alone. Not only does the Americano taste good, but each cup of coffee does some good in the lives of local young adults.
Street Bean’s mission extends far beyond creating a flavorful roast and offering friendly customer service, although they certainly do that, too. The coffee shop doubles as a program to help homeless and at-risk youth gain the skills and experience they need to transition to a life off the streets.
It all started in 2007 when Linda Ruthruff, a longtime staff member at the youth shelter New Horizons, wanted to solve a problem she saw: Although many young people were trying to find a job, they had no experience, references, or even a fixed address — all deterrents when it came to finding employment. That led her to the idea for Street Bean, which opened its doors in November 2009 as a nonprofit that gives motivated youth an opportunity to change all those factors — and roast a mean cup of coffee.
This specialty coffee shop lives up to its name. “We are at a point where we feel the coffee can really compete, honestly,” says Jesse Smith, marketing director and wholesale manager. “I would put up what we have against anything in Seattle.”
The beans are always rotating and come from a variety of places, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, Kenya, and Colombia. “The specialty coffee method helps in training the youth,” Jesse says. “They have to dial in the espresso and be pretty exact in their measurements to get the best taste.”
In addition to learning barista skills on La Marzocco espresso machines, the workers also study roasting, because diving deeper into the process helps them get even more out of the experience. There’s even a roasting apprenticeship for those who want to focus exclusively on that aspect. The flagship Belltown shop, located at 2711 3rd Avenue, has a small roasting machine, while the larger roaster is housed in donated space in the back of Redmond’s Overlake Christian Church.
In her apartment on Roosevelt Way, in the University District, near Street Bean’s second location that opened in October 2016, Larissa Kloepfel, 23, still keeps a bag of coffee that she roasted at the beginning of her apprenticeship. “I refuse to grind it up,” she says. “It smells too good.”
After three years of sleeping under bridges, camping in tents, jumping couches, and staying at shelters in the area, Larissa was exhausted from always trying to find a place to sleep. “It was almost like an awakening of, ‘I’m done with this; I need to get out of this; I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life,’” she says. She knew about Street Bean from staying at New Horizons, and was interested, given that coffee was a longtime passion. And although she worked as a barista as her first job when she was 15, this experience has been different.
“I’ve honestly learned more here than any job I’ve ever done,” she says. “The people that work here are great, and the whole team is collaborative.” In addition to teaching the hard skills it takes to succeed as a barista — things like dialing in the espresso, steaming the milk, and cleaning the dishes — Street Bean also imparts soft skills, such as how to communicate with customers and co-workers; how not to get angry or flustered when things aren’t working out; how to show up on time and be consistent; and how to have integrity when you make a mistake — all important traits that are transferable to any type of job.
Around 15 to 20 people come through the Street Bean program each year. Anthony Harris, 22, is the longest-serving employee; he’s been at the Belltown location for almost five years. Anthony was finishing high school at Interagency Academy, an alternative school in Seattle, when he saw Street Bean on a list of potential internships.
“My mom was a big coffee drinker growing up, and I was always curious how it was made,” he says from behind a white subway-tile counter, where he cheerfully makes drinks. Forming relationships with the customers is his favorite part of the job: He estimates that up to 80 percent of the people he serves are regulars. Thanks to a flexible work schedule, Anthony is in college, studying accounting, with the hopes of going into finance in the future.
Program attendees enter in different ways, but they’re all aged 18–24 and commit to six months. Each apprentice works with a case manager and is offered housing if they need it. “We want it to be their last stop on the way to exiting a life on the street,” Jesse says.
Although working in a coffee shop has a fairly low barrier to entry — “It’s easy to build customer service skills and develop socially without formal education,” Jesse explains — the apprenticeship is considered a high-barrier program because of the time commitment and requirement that the youth demonstrate that they’re ready to transition from living on the streets. “We want to make sure they want to grow and not just earn a paycheck,” Jesse says.
That’s certainly the case for Larissa, who is fascinated by the chemistry that goes into a cup of coffee, and dreams of opening her own cafe one day. She has big plans for a coffee shop that will be open 24 hours a day, offering people a safe and comfortable place to go, who might not otherwise have one — along with ample food options and fantastic beverages, of course.
Because Street Bean isn’t shy about being a bit coffee snobbish, Larissa will go out into the world with a solid base of knowledge surrounding coffee. Street Bean pays a higher price than average for their beans in order to help the farmers they work with and ensure a premium, more-flavorful cup of coffee. Those who want to brew the beans at home can pick up a bag at one of the stores; each one purchased funds an hour of job training.
When ordering a barista-made beverage inside the cafes, the options range from macchiatos and cappuccinos to chai lattes and hot chocolate. The cold brews are popular, as well, including a traditional cold brew and a nitrogen-infused variety. Last year, Schilling Hard Cider used Street Bean coffee to create the world’s first canned nitro hard cider, known as Grumpy Bear.
Street Bean hopes to open a third location, sometime in 2018. For now, they will continue to source exceptional coffee beans and provide job training to as many street youths as possible.
“People have a lot of preconceived notions about some of the youth and homelessness in Seattle, but I think that people would be surprised at just how normal the kids are,” Jesse says. “They’re worth the investment, and they’re worth folks stopping in every day and saying hi.”
Haley Shapley writes about travel from her home in Seattle. Read more of her work at haleyshapley.com.