The number of teenagers who would know where Papua New Guinea is without first Googling it is likely slim. Eli Gutierrez and Isabella Bacciarini not only know, they are financially linked to and entrepreneurially motivated by the island in the southwest Pacific Ocean off the coast of Australia.
The two Philadelphians, both 17, are in the coffee business, along with some other students at the String Theory Charter School, where "we really believe in bringing authentic learning experiences to kids," said Jason Corosanite, the school's cofounder and chief innovation officer.
For starters, the school opened an incubator on the top floor of its Vine Street campus for grades 5 through 12, formerly the site of offices for pharmaceutical titan GlaxoSmithKline P.L.C.
The Particle Accelerator, structured as a fellowship, with companies granted space at no charge in exchange for the educational benefit they can provide students, "is a culture of do, connecting theory to action and experimentation," the school says in a vision document. Its mission: "To activate the wonder, innovation, and art within our community, school, world, and selves."
Of six companies, one, the coffee enterprise still awaiting a name, is student-run. It began when String Theory high school principal Jack Carr suggested that being able to serve drinks from a spacious, comfortable area just off the lobby would "be great," Gutierrez, about to start his senior year, recalled a few days ago during a FaceTime interview from Mexico, where he was on vacation with family.
Carr introduced him to Corosanite, and the process of assembling the equipment and furniture needed for a cafe began, including the infusion of $10,000 in seed money from String Theory's student activities account.
Gutierrez also enrolled in a 11/2-month online barista course, augmented by pointers from a local professional. Given his classroom responsibilities at String, Gutierrez realized he needed help at the cafe. So he started teaching barista fundamentals to other students, including Bacciarini, who could satisfy their community-service hours (required at the school) by serving up lattes, cappuccinos and smoothies.
Gutierrez transitioned to manager and roaster at the cafe, also applying those skills after school at jobs at Logan Square and Capriccio at Cafe Cret, two of three coffee shops owned and operated by Capriccio Management Group, and at Top Hat Espresso Catering. A surprise visit in the spring to the school's Cafe Vine by David Wagaman, president and owner at Capriccio Management, led to another commercial opportunity.
"I said, 'It would be a good idea for you to buy our beans,' " Gutierrez said, recalling his pitch. Wagaman bit, now ordering 60 pounds a week of the medium-to-dark roast "with a delicate sweetness complemented by an exotic, complex and fruity aroma." It is named Obura, for a region of Papua New Guinea.
For now, it is served only at Capriccio's Logan Square Cafe, on 18th Street in Sister Cities Park, across from the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul.
Twelve-ounce bags of beans are expected to be available for purchase at all three Capriccio cafes by mid-September. Designed by String Theory students, the bags have an eye-catching tribesman's face painted in vibrant colors on the front, and a map depicting Papua New Guinea's location on the back. Wagaman said they will retail for $12.95 to $14.95 each. The school's cut will go to the student activities account, as do the proceeds from Cafe Vine, Corosanite said.
While he's helping a business venture in its early stages, Wagaman said, he, too, is benefiting from the school's coffee start-up.
"It's helped us find quality employees," he said of the three String Theory employees now on his payroll. "They feel more engaged. It's not just a job. They feel invested."
Revenue for the school's coffee company is about $2,000 a week, "with the hope of increasing that considerably" this school year, Corosanite said.
For Bacciarini, who will be a junior at String Theory in the fall and is a manager at Cafe Vine (and a barista at Logan Square), the value is in more than the revenues.
"It is empowering to say I actually run a business," said Bacciarini, whose mother oversees cleaning services at Ikea in South Philadelphia. "Especially being a girl. I've always been told it's usually a guy who opens a business."
As roaster of the Obura beans, a proud Gutierrez said: "Seeing someone smile when they drink the coffee is fantastic."