Prodigy Coffee opens this weekend at 3801 East 40th Avenue with a staff like no other coffee shop in Denver. The nonprofit coffeehouse has taken a group of at-risk youth through a barista training course and hired them on as employees. That’s just the beginning of what Prodigy, run by operations manager Jeff Knott and founder Steph Frances, plans to do.
Knott is a familiar face in the Denver coffee scene. Having helped opened several coffee shops, he has spent time pulling shots for the likes of Fluid, Thump, Pig Train, Blue Grass, Novo and now Prodigy. His new role is a change for him: He's responsible for training the staff on what coffee is and how it's made — taking people with little or no knowledge of or exposure to coffee and turning them into baristas who can hold their own in a latte-art throwdown. “Working with a nonprofit and at-risk youth has posed a whole new set of challenges, but I’ve absolutely been blown away by how engaged everyone is, and I’m excited to see how far they can go,” Knott says.
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While Frances has limited coffee experience, her background — with a decade of experience in education and community engagement — fits well with the nonprofit side of Prodigy. She has studied the effects that employment during high school has on schoolwork and a student’s ability to succeed, and wants to give options to students and young adults who might not have the opportunity to find a job otherwise.
Prodigy's hiring process is a little different than that of most coffee shops. Frances notes that she doesn't take applications or conduct interviews. To qualify, potential employees must be between the ages of 16 and 24 and show interest in working at Prodigy. The process begins with a barista training program, and from there, a handful of trainees are hired on to work regular shifts and continue their education in coffee. The rest can continue their coffee education in other capacities.
Prodigy's goal is to teach young adults about serving coffee as a trade and giving them the knowledge and skills to succeed in other, more conventional coffee shops. Other expected job requirements, like showing up on time, are also important, but Frances notes “We really want to stress that this is much more than just a nonprofit that teaches kids to make a cup of coffee; we are teaching them how to build relationships with people who are different than them. We are creating this space for something we call spiritual hospitality, a space for people to be fully and authentically themselves.”
Partners in the project include Allegro Coffee, which is providing operational guidance, purchasing power and financial donations; and the Denver Foundation, which helped provide grants and loans. Prodigy will hold its grand opening tomorrow, Saturday, July 30, from noon to 4 p.m., with regular hours from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday thereafter.