WILMINGTON – At Vigilant Hope’s new coffee shop, The Roastery, the slogan goes “good coffee for a good purpose.” Executive director Jeremy Hardy is dedicated to both those promises.
The Wilmington nonprofit has helped locals battling poverty for 10-plus years, largely with funds raised through its online coffee business. Now it’s opening a physical cafe on 16th Street with working baristas who will greatly benefit from the steady paycheck.
“We wanted this to be known as a good craft coffee place that I think Wilmington needs more of, that we see a lot in like Raleigh or Charlotte,” he said. “Just some good, good coffee.”
With a modern industrial feel, The Roastery will be an inviting space – post-pandemic – to hang around and sip on a latte. Spelled out in sleek black and white tiles, its menu lists mochas, cappuccinos, espressos, Americanos, as well as hot chocolate and tea. Customers will also be able to purchase bakery goods, bags of coffee beans, and Vigilant Hope mugs or T-shirts on display.
Then there’s the purpose. The hirees working the cash register or busing the tables are people who have been living on the streets, people who Vigilant Hope saw potential in.
Multiple organizations in Wilmington aim to connect people in need with jobs, but the ones who accept those without stable housing are far and few between.
“That’s kind of where we’re bridging that gap,” Hardy said. “We’ll take these folks that are still on the streets, give them jobs. It may be they’re just temporary until we get them into housing and then they go work for a bigger company.”
A hot market
The idea for the business can be traced back about five years ago when Vigilant Hope started fundraising for a portable shower trailer to offer the homeless.
Through talks with people living in homeless camps or receiving charity at outreach events, Hardy found what people needed most was a safe place to wash off.
The men and women he was inquiring with were bathing an average of four times a month, Hardy discovered. Often they were saving any money they had for a one-night hotel stay, just so they could take a shower.
By selling coffee grinds, Vigilant Hope raised over $12,000 to purchase a trailer and outfit it with showers. It’s currently stationed at Lake Forest Baptist Church, where the nonprofit hosts outreach events.
Not only is coffee a passion of Hardy’s, but Vigilant Hope is a faith-based organization – and people with faith like drinking coffee during Bible studies or on Sunday mornings. That demand helped the coffee business grow.
Vigilant Hope has seen success in its online roasting shop over the past two years. It has been working out of a temporary space in the Sunset Park neighborhood to roast and package beans, from a honey-processed Sumatra blend to a Brazillian batch with hints of milk chocolate.
“Coffee tends to be a more crowded market, but if you do it really well and you have that purpose behind it – people have just loved it,” Hardy said.
But first, renovations
A year ago, right before the start of the pandemic, the business moved to an old thrift shop at the corner of 16th and Dock streets with a vision for expansion. The inside of the building was in bad shape, and Vigilant Hope staff spent the next nine months slowly renovating the space.
The plan was never to open a sit-down shop. The nonprofit leaders just wanted enough space to upgrade the roaster and sell more coffee. Then, when Covid-19 spread to southeastern North Carolina, their online customers changed their buying habits.
“Our wholesale just went plunk,” Hardy said. “It just ceases to exist because churches aren’t meeting, restaurants don’t need as much coffee now. We knew there was potential in opening a cafe, and we knew that we could make some revenue to get some folks off the street.”
Upon initial opening, seating will be limited as Covid-19 continues to pose a safety risk. Hardy said he envisions people eventually hanging out in the welcoming environment as long as they desire, engaging with the workers, people they might not interact with in day-to-day life.
“Relationships are so key to helping eliminate poverty in town,” Hardy said. “You really have to understand the problem. The more, more people we can get here to see the problem, the better.”
Give jobs, change perspectives
Vigilant Hope wants to educate other employers about hiring people who are homeless, but it takes a great amount of understanding, Hardy said.
“A lot of them, they want to hire homeless folks, but they get so frustrated because this homeless person might be 30 minutes late to work and they just can’t be dependent,” Hardy said. “But then they step back and realize that if you’re riding a bus from Greenfield Lake to Mayfaire, it could take you two hours to get there.”
The Roastery is conveniently located in the Southside of downtown Wilmington and is walkable for the members of the homeless community it mostly commonly works with.
Some businesses are coming around. Investors who noticed the successful remodel of The Roastery building are connecting with Vigilant Hope to offer clients construction gigs.
Vigilant Hope is currently renovating the old Boys and Girls Club on Castle Street into a co-working space called The Garden Co. When it opens, the nonprofit will hire people to oversee the rentals of the office space.
Although more people will be earning a wage, Vigilant Hope is wary that a job is not an instant fix to poverty. However, they have noticed visible changes in people’s attitudes.
“I think the big thing is just feeling that ownership of ‘Someone has trusted me with a job I’m gonna do my best at’ and they don’t really see that very often,” Hardy said. “A lot of people in our city just kind of overlook the homeless and they don’t give them the time of day. We’re trying to change that perspective.”
The Roastery will be open starting Jan. 5 on Tuesdays through Saturdays from 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 24 South 16 St.
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