LEWISTON — Less than six months after opening its doors, Common Grounds Cafe is making plans to expand its offerings this summer.
The pay-what-you-can coffee shop in the heart of the downtown Tree Streets neighborhood is a training ground for teens who want to get a taste of what it’s like working in a business. It’s also a gathering spot for the community, as evidenced on a recent Saturday morning.
Damon Crouse is the program director at The Root Cellar, the cafe’s location at 89 Birch St. Together with his wife, Vicky, they hatched the idea to start the cafe.
“Realizing that Lewiston doesn’t really have a lot of cafes, especially ones that are accessible to our local community at the Tree Streets, we wanted to offer something that the community didn’t have,” explained Crouse, “and have a low barrier. … Our neighbors don’t have a ton of income. They come and gather and build relationships with each other in this space … (while the cafe provides) work experience for the teens.”
Crouse said they checked out other coffee shops in the area and talked with the owners about what it takes to run a cafe and what lessons they learned along the way. The teens selected to work at Common Grounds created their own mission statement and goals, which are periodically reviewed to see if they are meeting those goals.
Getting picked to work there was not simply a matter of signing on. Out of the 10 to 15 teens who work on the Lew Crew, which is a lawn care and woodworking business connected to The Root Cellar, eight expressed interest in working in the coffee shop. But Crouse wanted to start with only four teens. So he came up with an idea to make the selection process fair.
“We had them all write a 200-word essay as to why we should hire them,” Crouse explained. “So, I received four essays. So if they wrote an essay, they were hired. We’ve kind of hired and added to our staff as we’ve needed.”
Marie Dada and Nevaeh Warner, both 10th graders, were working the day the Sun Journal visited. Dada said she wants to be a pediatrician, and will pursue business and health studies at Lewiston Regional Technical Center. Warner said she was accepted to the culinary program at the technical center.
Students Klein Dozolo and Mucyo Rayira work as a barista and cook, respectively, but had sports-related commitments and couldn’t work that day.
A regular stream of customers — regulars and newcomers alike — came in and out of Common Grounds, some savoring the fresh-brewed coffee and breakfast sandwiches, others just dropping by to socialize. No one is ever asked to pay. Some offered donations and tips, to help offset those who cannot afford to pay. It’s part of the business model and it seems to be working.
Anywhere from 25 to 75 people come through the doors on any given Saturday — the only day the cafe is open — and the enterprise is holding its own, breaking even every week, Crouse said, aside from some bigger startup expenses that included the espresso machine and other expensive equipment.
The teens and Crouse meet every week for two hours to review their progress. “Part of that time is just shopping for what we need the next week. Part of that time we look back at our goals, look at our expenses, look at the donations coming in.”
Crouse said the program is successful and the reaction from the community has encouraged them to continue and hope it grows. “I think that in the summer we’re going to open up a few more days a week, because we’re kind of limited during the school year. We’re hoping to get an old camper and turn it into a coffee trailer and be at different locations on different days to serve different areas of the community.”
Common Grounds is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon. For more information on the program, or other programs at The Root Cellar, call 207-782-3659 or online at https://therootcellar.org/.