Coffee with Soul, Youth with a future

Michele D. Baker  |  Photography courtesy of Staci Lewis Photography

The non-profit Meraki Roasting Company focuses on developing youth first and then perfecting an ideal cup of coffee.

Ben Lewis believes anything is possible through good coffee. He sees the proof every day at Meraki Roasting Company, where young men and women are carefully hand-crafting their lives along with the lattes.

Since it opened four years ago in downtown Clarksdale, Miss., Meraki has become a destination café for coffee lovers drawn to specialty brews made from beans roasted on-site.

“Meraki (muh-RAH-kee) is a Greek verb meaning ‘to do something with soul, creativity, and love; to put a piece of yourself into your work,’ and it is the foundation of everything we do here,” says Lewis, Meraki’s program director.

Meraki is just one of the successful programs of Griot Arts, a Clarksdale nonprofit focusing on the arts, education, and workforce development for young adults.

“The idea came from Town Hall meetings where local youth explained they were struggling with the age-old dilemma of no experience/no job,” Lewis remembers. “They wanted to provide for themselves, but they couldn’t get their foot in the door to begin. And, because they’re teenagers in a rural area, they wanted somewhere to hang out.”

The Meraki Roasting Company and its café on the corner of Third Street and Sunflower in the heart of town offer up a “triple shot” solution: The youth selected for the 16-week program, who are called “fellows,” earn a wage, gain valuable professional skills, and experience for future employment. They have also cultivated a safe and creative space for local youth of all ages to gather.

“Meraki sometimes feels like a paradox because it has two different halves,” explains Lewis. “First, as part of the Griot Arts family, it values and follows the three Cs: creativity, community, and compassion. Second, we’ve got this coffee roastery, which on its face is a business, but by definition, we won’t really ever be completely self-sustaining, because that’s not part of our model. For example, we buy only ethically sourced beans in small batches from reputable coffee brokers. We often know the name of the cooperative or family who grew the beans, and they are more expensive, which cuts into our profit margin. But sustainability and fair trade are core values.”

Meraki also schedules more baristas per shift than are necessary to take care of customers. “We know that our fellows need the feedback and collaboration of the team,” explains Lewis. “And, we have huge turnover in our staff, as every four months a new cohort arrives to be trained. We understand that Meraki is a launching pad to other things.”

Fellows are selected for their willingness to learn and grow, and their ability to commit to the intensive program. So far, all of the candidates have come through word-of-mouth.

“We meet weekly with each fellow to see where they are on their individual learning plans, which are based on their strengths,” says coordinator Laurel Keller. “We do group classwork on topics like professional appearance, résumé and interview skills, financial literacy, and money management. Then, there are scheduled shifts at the café, where fellows serve as baristas, tidy the space, check out customers, and fill the coffee subscriptions.”

The Meraki microroasters offer several blends for discerning coffee lovers: Sunflower Soul (dark blend from Ethiopia), Mighty Mississippi (robust from Guatemala), Streetcar Decaf (Mexico), and the Meraki Signature blend (Colombia). Muddy Water (Sumatra), a robust seasonal blend, has become so popular that it may be added to the regular rotation. There’s even a “Roaster’s Choice” which changes according to the culinary moods of the artisans. Subscriptions are hand-delivered to Clarksdale patrons and mailed everywhere else.

“It’s not just about coffee and jobs,” Lewis continues. “Our fellows also learn those untaught soft skills that are so important. Things like communicating across lines of difference with people who don’t look like you or think like you, or collaborating with others to keep the team healthy, or learning the forethought and planning skills needed to let your future boss know you’ll be late for your shift.”

Lewis fondly remembers another former fellow (now graduated) whose temper ran as hot as the coffee.

“He improved so much. I took him along to a festival to run the coffee cart,” says Lewis. “Afterward, I complimented him on his professionalism with the customers and with keeping the booth organized. He was so surprised — he told me he’d been upset most of the morning by the pressure of taking and filling orders, tidying up the space, keeping the cups stocked… but he used his new skills to deal with all that. Until I pointed it out, he didn’t have any idea just how far he’d really come.

“It’s like the fable about the man walking along the beach and throwing individual starfish back into the sea,” concludes Lewis. “Ultimately, Meraki is here for that one student standing in front of you.”


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