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It's a coffee shop, sure, and a franchised one at that, with a dizzying array of caffeinated choices, just like any other. There are lattes—whole milk and skim—frothy cappuccinos, eye-popping triple-shot espressos and baked goods that claim some modicum of nutrition but in the final analysis are, well, baked goods. To the uninitiated, it doesn't seem all that different from, say, a Starbucks, with its comfy wing-back chairs and WiFi interconnectedness and baristas who know your order by heart.
For what looks like a typical coffee shop is in fact an edgy social experiment, and a first for Dallas, one that seeks to create an ethical workplace open to an unusual subset of employees—asylum seekers, immigrants, victims of domestic violence, ex-convicts, reformed prostitutes, former drug users, pretty much anyone in dire need of a second chance.
Barley, himself a recovering barista from a five-and-a-half-year stint at Starbucks, says he was drawn to It's a Grind not so much because of its coffee—"It's better than Starbucks," he says—but because of its business model. The coffeehouse is the first entrepreneurial venture of the Demeter Project, a nonprofit dedicated to reinventing the American workplace by paying a living wage (almost twice the federal minimum) and providing full health benefits (no employee deductibles), reliable full-time hours (unexpected scheduling conflicts, no problem), a workplace where "respect and ethics are key words," and hiring practices that encourage employing job candidates with troubled backgrounds.
"You can go to any fast-food place, anywhere in the United States, and you can see people who are doing everything they can to maintain a living," Flowers explains. "We thought, 'Why don't we create an organization where we can pay them a living wage and provide them with basic health care?'" Flowers' work with the Human Rights Initiative led him to consider non-traditional employees—anyone from an ex-drug dealer to a Somali refugee. "We're mixing people who have no past [with] those who are attempting to rebuild their lives," Flowers explains. It's a challenge and a learning opportunity for people on both sides. "You all have to work together and figure out, regardless of what your history is, how to make this work."