Along 4th street in South Minneapolis, there’s an interesting intersection of kids, coffee, and social entrepreneurship working together to help people transform their lives and break the cycle of poverty. At the heart of this work is CityKid Java.
CityKid Java started a decade ago as a youth development and earned income strategy for Urban Ventures. Over time it has become a $1 million a year social enterprise company that continues to support Urban Ventures’ youth programs while providing development and mentorship opportunities for local youth. Urban Ventures is a South Minneapolis institution whose focus is to help people break the cycle of generational poverty by giving participants the tools to transform their lives.
I recently had the opportunity to stop by and chat with Beth Mammenga, CityKid Java’s Director of Operations about what it’s like trying to compete in the Twin Cities crowded coffee market, running a social enterprise company, and about coffee.
The market for premium coffee in Minneapolis can be very competitive with new roasting companies sprouting up all the time. The competition can be especially fierce for a small business like CityKid Java in retail sales where they need to be price competitive with large brands like Starbucks and Caribou. According to Mammenga, it can be a real challenge to be market relevant and have a social component to your company.
An additional challenge for CityKid Java is that some people can have a misperception that if a product comes from a social enterprise company, it’s not as good as a product from a traditional company. That being said, a big advantage of working at a social enterprise company is you get to think about more than the bottom line.
CityKid Java considers themselves to be a direct trade company. They do this by working with a local roaster who has direct relationships with growers. Being a direct trade company allows them to think holistically about the supply chain and how it connects to their mission. It also allows them to focus on their growers’ labor and environmental practices. This was important because “as a social enterprise we were not only supporting people in Minneapolis but also the people who grow the coffee,” said Mammenga.
Much of CityKid Java’s business comes from Fortune 500 companies, universities, and churches. As Mammenga said, “We’ve found a sweet spot with Fortune 500 companies that have a corporate social responsibility arm that wants them to do good.”
They also are a natural fit with churches, whose missions connect with Urban Ventures’ work. In addition to providing coffee CityKid Java also provides fundraising opportunities for nonprofits, schools, and churches where organizations can buy coffee at a discount to sell, keeping the difference to fund their programs, trips, etc.
This past year they started their Coffee Crew, which is a team of youth 14 to 18 years old who are employed by CityKid Java. “It’s a really fun way for kids to have employment [and] earn a wage while they are working with us,” said Mammenga. They also get some skills and have something to put on their resume, which can help improve their future job prospects. The youth working on the Coffee Crew spend most of their time working at events, passing out samples, and talking to people about the coffee and Urban Ventures.
CityKid Java has a variety of coffees for different tastes; this includes their CityKid Java and Lake Street blends that have a little more caffeine than their darker roasts and are especially good in the morning. One of their most popular coffees for their larger corporate accounts is their dark roast Sumatra. A favorite retail coffee is their Highlander Grog, which is a flavored coffee with butterscotch and caramel flavors.
To help make sure they stay in touch with their customers’ tastes, CityKid Java does blind tastings and has their Coffee Crew out at events. They recently won the contract at University of Northwestern St. Paul based on a blind taste test with their students.
When talking about trends, Mammenga said the biggest thing has and will continue to be single serve. CityKid Java worked with their roaster to develop an open bottom single serve. This reduces the amount of waste and produces better coffee since the coffee isn’t brewed through hot plastic. This also makes it more like a traditional brewing process. The open bottom cups can also be stored in a nitrogen sealed bag, which reduces their exposure to air, which increases the coffee’s freshness. Their roaster is also working on developing compostable single-serve containers.
Having a chance to visit CityKid Java you can feel the energy from the youth working in the office and the excitement for their holiday gift boxes, which were stacked and ready to be delivered. When asked what was ahead, Mammenga said CityKid Java has been in Minnesota for 12 years now and is starting to look at potential geographic expansion and for other ways they can increase the amount of support they provide to Urban Ventures.
Photos courtesy of CityKid Java
Mark is Umami's publisher