For anyone born into poverty, creating a better life can be a grind. But for kids in one under-resourced Nashville neighborhood, it’s a grind, roast, and brew, thanks to a social enterprise that turns beans into opportunity.
My Lyft driver does a double take when he sees my destination. “You sure that’s the right address?” he asks. As we get closer, I can understand his surprise. Much of Nashville is booming, but not the neighborhood known as Napier-Sudekum. Home to the largest barracks-style government housing complex in the U.S., Napier-Sudekum has an average household income of just $6,500 and leads the city in youth violence.
We pass seemingly endless ranks of drab, desolate barracks, then a heavily fortified liquor store, and then, out of nowhere, a neat gray structure with red trim and a sign proclaiming, “Humphreys Street Coffee and Soap.”
Inside, Ruben Torres-Fuentes gives me a tour and schools me on the most esoteric points of coffee production, like the density of beans and the variation in micro-climates. He has the vocabulary of a sommelier and the nose, too: Give him a handful of beans, and he can tell you how long since they were roasted.
At age 24, Ruben represents the most rarefied strata of American coffee culture, and that can make him seem oddly out of place in a neighborhood like this — except that he’s not out of place at all. He grew up nearby, the son of Mexican immigrants who spoke no English, trying to scratch out a living at the fringes of Music City USA. To help him learn the language, his mother enrolled him in an after-school program at Harvest Hands Community Development Corporation, a faith-based nonprofit founded by Brian Hicks and his wife, Courtney.
When Brian asked the after-school kids if they’d like to learn a trade, 12-year-old Ruben was one who jumped at the chance. Little did he know he was getting in on the ground floor of a social enterprise that would change his own life and touch thousands of others like him. Today, Humphreys Street Coffee and Soap generates $500,000 in annual revenue — roughly one-third the budget of its parent nonprofit. All the money is reinvested in the mission of Harvest Hands CDC, helping to bring sports leagues, after-school programs, healthcare, mentoring, and more to hundreds of the most disconnected kids in Nashville every day.
The Accidental Enterprise
“I didn’t set out to start a social enterprise,” says Brian. “I didn’t know such a thing existed. I just knew there were kids in my neighborhood getting into trouble, and I figured the only way to get them off the streets was to pay them. I was a hobby coffee roaster and my wife made homemade soaps, so that seemed like the natural place to start.”
We’re sitting in Humphreys Street Coffee, a retail storefront about a mile away from the roasting facility. It’s a bright, welcoming space with heart-pine floors, vaulted ceilings, and exposed ductwork. Young baristas create $5 latte art while customers hunch over their Apple MacBooks. Except for the double-entendre slogan on each cup — “Drink good coffee for a change” — there’s little about the place that says “charity.”
And that’s exactly the way Brian wants it. “I would hope that people love our coffee without even knowing about our mission. I have a firm philosophy: We have to be excellent in everything we do because we’re mentoring students, and we want them to succeed in the marketplace. That’s why our product has to be the best out there.”
Doing Good from Farm to Cup
Americans spend about $74 billion a year in coffee shops and another $14 billion on coffee to serve at home. Those are mind-boggling numbers considering that a single coffee tree will produce just one pound of Arabica beans per year, on average. Growing demand has led to vast coffee plantations in developing countries, with corporate owners willing to exploit local workers and harm the environment with harsh pesticides that boost production.
Working with the fair-trade company Mayorga Organics, Humphreys Street sources its beans from family farms and small coops that grow their crops organically. “One bag of beans might represent a farmer’s entire production for a whole year,” Brian says. “So you’d better be treating them well — it’s a real human on the other end.”
Of course fair trade isn’t a new idea, and even some publicly traded companies have started taking more responsibility for their supply chains. Brian appreciates that trend, but he thinks it’s only one-third of the story. Roasting the coffee and serving it represent two more opportunities to change lives for the better. “Our first responsibility is to our neighbors, those closest to us,” he says. By building facilities in under-resourced neighborhoods, teaching job skills, and hiring disconnected youth, he believes that coffee can be a source of good from farm to cup.
“We’re not like the soup kitchen or clothes closet; we don’t want people to be dependent on us. We want to give students the skills and tools to succeed on their own. We believe that’s the way you break the cycle of poverty.”
Spend for Good: If you care about the cause of youth empowerment and employment, Humphreys Street coffee is available online at $15 to $20 a pound along with soap products starting at $6. Visit https://humphreysstreet.com.