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Stomping Grounds Cafe, a new coffee shop in West Philadelphia, offers life lessons to students

YouthBuild’s Business Administration Scholars program mixes classroom instruction with hands-on training in the cafe.

Barista Mel Osborn at the counter of Stomping Grounds Cafe with a double espresso.
Barista Mel Osborn at the counter of Stomping Grounds Cafe with a double espresso.Read moreMICHAEL KLEIN / Staff

In 2020, YouthBuild Philly, a North Philadelphia charter school that serves young adults who are working toward a high school diploma, was looking to open a coffee shop to serve as a student-run business open to the public. Kim Paulus happened upon the job description for a teacher to oversee the shop in West Philadelphia.

“I could not believe my eyes,” Paulus said last week. “I vacillated between coffee and social work my entire professional career.” Paulus, 42, landed the job and started the school year hosting classes by Zoom.

Two weeks ago, the shop, Stomping Grounds Cafe, opened in the same building at 39th Street and Lancaster Avenue in Powelton Village that previously housed Mighty Writers, the group that teaches writing to young people.

Stomping Grounds has all the accoutrements of a traditional cafe — seating at tables, comfy chairs, easy music, and a full line of espresso drinks featuring coffee by Philadelphia’s High Point Cafe. It’s also a work in progress, using wine glasses for espresso because the actual cups had not yet arrived.

It’s a flexible space and classroom for 30 students in YouthBuild’s Business Administration Scholars program. Paulus mixes classroom instruction with the hands-on training in the cafe — reminiscent of Saxbys Coffee’s experiential learning cafes that are led by university students.

The students get a stipend for their work from YouthBuild, which is funded by agencies such as AmeriCorps.

It’s teaching, but it’s more of a ‘360 [degree] nurturing,’” Paulus said. “There will be times where I’ll wrap up class and say, ‘OK, we’re out. And then next thing I know, I’m talking to somebody for an hour.”

YouthBuild serves students ages 18 to 21 whose education has been interrupted for any number of reasons, Paulus said. Referrals come from the public school system, housing agencies, and various social-service agencies. “There’s a lot of love and a lot of trauma-informed care,” Paulus said. “We help students who are dealing with legal issues with housing.” (One day last week, Paulus was minding the shop while talking on the phone with a student who said she was considering dropping out of school because she and her family were about to get evicted. The situation was later resolved.)

Mel Osborn, 21, the shop’s only full-time employee, had hoped to combine her studies with work in the shop, “but everything was delayed by the pandemic.” She graduated and is working at Stomping Grounds to gain more experience.

The idea of a coffee shop lends itself to YouthBuild’s mission. “I want to be able to personally vouch for everybody that comes through these doors and say that this person is a barista, because a barista isn’t just somebody who can apply hot water to ground beams. You know what I mean? A barista is an all-around Swiss Army human,” Paulus said. Restaurants these days don’t have time to train workers.

Stomping Grounds’ mission is also described as rooted in social justice. “I think the best way to describe it would be to say that everyone has seat at the table,” Paulus said, citing a pay-it-forward campaign that allows others to pay for drinks and food for people who can’t afford it. The cafe plans to help with local issues such as block cleanup and other community assistance.

Paulus said the students are learning the difference between equality and equity. “Equality is great, if we all had a level playing field,” she said. “We don’t, and so that is why we’re working to raise everything around us. We have to acknowledge that not everybody starts from the same place.”

Another important distinction is the difference between being a consumer versus a creator. “We want to make conscientious leaders,” Paulus said. “We want our students to be able to intelligently engage the world around them and to follow their passions in a way that could lead to actual productivity. People who are drawn to this track typically are the more creative types. We are setting up future entrepreneurs.”

The students are learning event-planning, as well as Shark Tank-like entrepreneurial mentoring with business consultants from Ernst & Young, and education in coffee from Stephanie Rowley, High Point’s roaster.

“These kids come in and they’re very tough, street wise. And then they just all of a sudden melt into dork because it’s really interesting,” Paulus said of a coffee class. “In general, we want people who can seamlessly integrate into the business world of the future,” she said.

Hours for now are 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays.