What makes a successful coffee shop? Great beans, a cool playlist, a stylish space, and skilled baristas are all essential. But at the nearly three-month-old Prodigy Coffeehouse in Elyria Swansea, nothing is as important as community. The entire shop is run under the umbrella of a nonprofit (Prodigy Ventures), which offers educational barista apprenticeship programs to the at-risk youth of northeast Denver. That approach not only gives residents the chance to learn invaluable real-world job skills, it also means that the shop is firmly rooted in the neighborhood it serves, rather than just a marker of gentrification.
Operations manager Jeffrey Knott, a coffee consultant who’s worked with various well-known shops on their openings (including Novo Coffee, Thump Coffee Roasters, and Fluid Coffee Bar), explains how the program works: kids age 16 to 24 (many of whom were disillusioned by the traditional education system) are welcome to sign on for the intensive two-week training program. After the training concludes, Prodigy hires on as many as it can for a year-long apprenticeship (17 candidates were selected for the initial program). Throughout that year, the employees hone their barista skills while also tapping into Prodigy’s supplemental educational opportunities, which cover everything from how to dress and behave professionally to résumé writing.
Stephanie Frances spawned the idea for Prodigy after 10 years of experience in youth career development at alternative schools in Denver, citing the large gap between what’s being taught in the education system and the actual skills needed to “hack the professional world.” It was important to her that the young people learn a craft—in this case, making coffee—and in turn go on to become lifelong learners. So far, the process has been a rewarding one for all involved. “Their [the apprentices’] progress and willingness to learn is incredible,” Knott says. “We’re not trying to baby them or coddle them, we’re holding them accountable. And they are more than capable.” Frances estimates that the kids have learned as much in their three months at the shop as they would have during a year of traditional schooling.
At the end of the year, the apprentices will transition out—unless they’d like to try their hand at learning to manage the shop. “The goal, eventually, is for the coffee shop to be completely apprentice-run,” Knott says. And while turnover is traditionally viewed as a negative thing in most businesses, here, it’s the opposite. Prodigy hopes to see the baristas move forward with their careers after the year is up, even if that means finding employment elsewhere. In fact, over the next couple of months, Knott himself is transitioning out (to assist different clients with other coffee shop openings) and a new manager will take his place.
Prodigy’s mission is clearly a noble one, but make no mistake: the coffee itself is just as good. When the apprentice baristas started at Prodigy, many said that they had never even tried coffee; others said that their favorite cup could be found at 7-Eleven. After months of training, they can now discuss the bright flavors of a washed Ethiopian bean or the off-notes of an over-extracted shot of espresso with ease. The shop sources beans from its partner, Allegro Coffee (which has donated an estimated $30,000 to the endeavor), and is planning on rolling out a pour-over program over the next couple of weeks based around the boutique offerings from Allegro’s small-batch counterpart, Allegro Coffee Roasters (ACR). In the meantime, stop by and ask your barista about the iced fall coffee, a Japanese-style cold brew infused with house-made spiced syrup. It’s similar to the ubiquitous pumpkin spice latte, but better in so many ways.
Bonus: Prodigy isn’t the only new java stop in the area. Stop by the three week old Commonwealth Coffee roastery and cafe for a bag of freshly roasted beans and a bright shot of single-origin espresso. On Saturday mornings, don’t miss the featured cereal milk latte special, which rotates through a different breakfast cereal weekly. 5225 E. 38th Ave., 720-588-2270
3801 E. 40th Ave., 303-904-9967
—Photo by Rachel Adams