The original Purple Door Coffee cafe was the brainchild of Dry Bones, a nonprofit in Denver that supports youth experiencing homeless. The organization, which began in a pool hall downtown, provides companions for the youth it meets; rather than caseworkers or resource navigators, staff and volunteers are considered friends.
“We do the things friends do,” says Matt Wallace, Dry Bones co-founder and executive director. Pre-pandemic, staff and volunteers would take teens to the movies or bowling, and the nonprofit also hosted regular family-style dinners at its offices at 1600 Downing Street. Now Dry Bones is working to reinstate those activities.
“We're there for our friends in the same way you hope your friends will be,” Wallace explains. So staff and volunteers accompany youth to appointments with case managers, trips to the health clinic and court dates, but they're also there to celebrate accomplishments with them.
Nearly a decade after Dry Bones launched, Wallace realized that job placement for young people in the program was an ongoing challenge: While the organization was able to connect them with jobs, the employment would rarely last. “They would land a job, but because there was too much trauma in their past or they never witnessed the work ethic needed to stick with it, they couldn’t keep the job,” he explains. “They're brilliant people — they know how to survive on the streets! But holding a job can be tough.”
New Horizons, was opening a cafe called Street Beans, which is still operating. Street Beans has the same goals — employing youth in a supportive work environment with training in skills that could apply to future jobs. Learning from the New Horizons business plan, Dry Bones launched Purple Door Coffee in 2013, led by interns-turned-directors Madison Chandler (who has since left the organization) and Mark Smesrud.
Along with serving customers, teens participated in life-skills programming and received instruction in real time, which was challenging when customers were present. Smesrud said they'd often have to revisit trainings at the end of the day, once the customers were gone, which sometimes led to the shift ending on a negative note.
Being a barista is a romantic occupation, often thought of as an interesting way to meet people among the aroma of coffee for an artist or young adult working toward a dream. However (and this author can speak from experience), while that idea is partially true, being a barista — like any front-facing customer-service job — can be tough. A few years in, Smesrud realized that most of the youth staff needed a quieter environment to succeed. So in 2019, Dry Bones closed the purple door (literally) and moved the job training to the roaster, which it had launched in 2016.
“We went from being visible to a tucked-away job program,” Smesrud said. “But a quiet, safe, calm environment is really what our participants need.”
Smesrud, who after nearly ten years as director will step down in September to pursue his MBA, roasted the beans while the teen staff helped package and ship wholesale beans, simultaneously receiving job and life-skills training. Purple Door also added totes to the mix, sewing them out of the bags that green coffee beans come in and selling them at farmers' markets and other events.
Smesrud, though, was relieved to not have the cafe, noting that he doesn't think it would have survived the pandemic restrictions on small businesses. “I am so glad we got to close on our terms,” he says. The roaster survived largely because of the support of Dry Bones and an uptick in at-home subscriptions.
Now most of Purple Door's business comes from home subscriptions, though it also supplies coffee to a cafe and sells at farmers' markets so the teen participants can get some face-to-face experience with customers. It currently has three active youths in the job program, and hopes to reach six by the end of the year. Wallace wants to see the program expand even more, with a goal of serving fifteen to thirty participants in the coming years.
With Smesrud's departure, Tami Bonner and Houston Shearon are on board to take Purple Door's mission to the next level. Shearon, the new operations manager, has a background in working with nonprofits and as an at-home coffee roaster. Bonner is the current development and communications coordinator for Dry Bones, and will be stepping in as the interim director of social enterprise, focusing on Purple Door Coffee.
“We roast really great coffee, but first and foremost we’re here for a group of people who are invisible for most of their life,” Bonner notes. “We provide consistency and opportunity so people have time to catch their breath, get paid and survive."
The old purple door of Purple Door Coffee's cafe now sits at the roaster’s small warehouse in Englewood. The door is covered in silver-inked notes of thanks, some from customers who appreciated a good cup of coffee, others from the youth whose lives were — and continue to be — changed by Purple Door's mission.
“Thank you for everything and creating a space 4 me to grow. Learn. And cultivate relationships,” reads one message. And that's exactly what Purple Door Coffee will continue to do.