“We’re not just a coffeehouse," says Steph Frances, founder and executive director of Prodigy Coffeehouse
. "Since 2016, we’ve seen a lot of youth who felt like they were falling through the cracks, and we picked them up. We are more than a powerful workplace. We are criminal justice prevention, suicide prevention and a place of deep healing." And now that mission is expanding with the opening of a second location at 4500 Broadway on September 8; a grand-opening celebration is planned for September 23.
The young adults Frances refers to are the ninety-plus 18- to 24-year-olds who have participated in Prodigy's twelve- to eighteen-month barista apprenticeship program since it launched six years ago
. Half of the curriculum comprises paid employment, serving customers cappuccinos at the shop's original location at 3801 East 40th Avenue; the other half involves paid barista training, in which youth learn both life and latte skills. With Globeville on tap, the program will be offered at both locations.
The youth who find Prodigy feel like misfits who are searching not only for jobs and a living wage, but also a second chance and a place to fit in, says Frances. “By definition, a prodigy is a person, especially a young one, endowed with exceptional qualities or abilities," she explains. "At Prodigy, young adults study the craft of coffee, and we activate their inherent greatness. They are your next-generation leaders, here to go forth and enrich the city.”
Prodigy's new location in Globeville.
Julian Sanchez is one of that next generation; he's currently in Denver’s Diversion program, the last Hail Mary before incarceration. “I was hanging with the wrong crowd," he admits. "Prodigy gave me a new place to be better, do better. I’m back in school now. [Prodigy] gave me a home where I can excel and be myself.” And to stay engaged, which can be a challenge in a traditional school setting.
“We give recruits a chance to really love on themselves," Frances says. "We don’t care who they are, what they did, where they come from, what they look like. We just want them to come." Which is why she set up Prodigy’s business model in a non-traditional way, lining up a host of educators, psychology clinicians and state-workforce advocates to sit on her board and help design programming that would speak to an alternative language of learning.
After that, she decided to keep it real for the kids. “We don’t believe in interviews," she notes. "Interviews are just two people sitting across the table from each other, lying to each other. It’s very intimidating.” Instead, to gain entry into the Prodigy program, interested applicants must shadow Prodigy management during a paid four-day training program to ensure mutual love and passion. Upon acceptance, they must follow the twelve- to eighteen-month barista instruction, where it’s full steam ahead.
“We expect a lot, and we have very high standards," Frances says. "We test them on all aspects of coffee creation. We also teach them life skills. Maybe they want to go into Prodigy management. Maybe they want to be a salaried barista at a high-end restaurant. Maybe they want to take the job-training skills we teach them and apply them elsewhere, and that’s perfectly fine.”
The program has had over ninety participants over the years.
Summer Davis is a Prodigy manager-in-training. “The apprenticeship empowers these kids to build relationships, to maintain eye contact," she says of her experience. "It pushes them out of their comfort zones and teaches them how to trust.”
Frances admits that not all program participants are initially quite so willing. No one is ever fired for slacking off or not showing up; instead, they are removed from the schedule until they’re ready to come back. “Some have matured a bit, returned and just crushed it," she says. "We never see anyone as a lost cause. Ever.”
“Steph just knows how to tap into greatness," says Michael Rhoads, a baker and chef at Ardent Mills who volunteers at Prodigy. "College isn’t the only road to success. I was recently at the new Globeville location to ensure everyone has the skills they need for progress and process control. I’ve never seen anything quite like what she’s doing for these kids. She's exceptional.”
When choosing the location for the second Prodigy, Frances purposefully elected to open in what's been named the most polluted zip code in the country. “As a longtime Globeville resident, I’m so proud to live in this community and among neighbors who work so determinedly to make Globeville a place where our ancestors see it thriving and surviving,” says Prodigy boardmember Angela Garcia.
With the help of Gloebville developer Fiona Arnold, president of Mainspring
, which owns and operates Backyard on Blake, the Workroom, Blue Sparrow Coffee, Room for Milly and Queens Eleven, Prodigy has made a $2 million, 2,500-square-foot, state-of-the-art investment in Globeville. “I have hired quite a few Prodigy graduates, and I’m familiar with the success of this program," Arnold says. "We were looking for a passionate partner to come in and create a neighborhood gathering place in Globeville, and Steph is the perfect person to do just that.”
Prodigy Coffeehouse Globeville is located at 4500 Broadway; as of Thursday, September 8, it will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; the grand-opening celebration will take place from 5 to 8 p.m. on September 23. For more information, visit prodigyventures.org.