By Jennifer Warnick
Juanita Vasquez dreamed of managing her own Starbucks store.
Then one day Vasquez, assistant manager of the store in Jamaica, Queens, heard a rumor Starbucks might be opening a new location in the Bedford–Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn near where she grew up.
“No way,” she thought. She immediately texted her manager and mentor, Alisha Wrencher: “Is this true?”
Wrencher checked. It was true.
Even more exciting, it would be a community store just like their Starbucks in Queens, designed to support economic and social change in the neighborhood by hiring locally and providing job training for young people. At this news, Vasquez was overtaken by one of the most potent human feelings – that wonderful, terrible sensation of wanting something so badly you think you might … actually … explode.
“This is my childhood,” Vasquez told Wrencher. “I need this store.”
“If you want this, you’ve got to go get it,” Wrencher said.
Before long, Vasquez had an interview scheduled with Carla Ruffin, a regional director of operations for the New York metro area.
“Don’t be afraid to tell your story,” Wrencher told Vasquez as she helped her get ready for the big day. “Tell her about growing up in your neighborhood. Tell her about what we’ve experienced here in Jamaica.”
There’s really no use drawing out the suspense, here: The interview went well. Really well. Vazquez prepared a coffee tasting for Ruffin, and found a way to pour everything she was thinking and feeling into a single cup.
“You’ve got the job,” Ruffin said after the tasting, wiping tears from her eyes. Later, the regional director said she can’t recall ever offering someone a job on the spot like that.
I’m sure right about now you’re wondering, “What on earth did Juanita put in that cup?”
To truly understand the blend, we need to back up a bit.
‘A bigger purpose than coffee’
The new Starbucks in Bedford–Stuyvesant (which everyone calls Bed-Stuy) opens today. The store is bright, colorful, and community-minded, not unlike its new manager, Vasquez. Inside, there is a glass-doored meeting room and an entire wall painted by Brooklyn-based artist Olalekan Jeyifous.
“It’s a girl holding up a plant – my personality in a mural,” Vasquez said. “When I walked into the store for the first time last week, I started hugging the walls. Everything is so beautiful.”
Bed-Stuy is the tenth community store Starbucks has opened as part of its initiative to invest in at least 15 underserved communities in the U.S. Community stores create local jobs, partner with area nonprofits to provide in-store job-skills training for young people ages 16 to 24 who aren’t in school or working, and partner with local women- and minority-owned contractors, suppliers, and vendors.
The opening of community store Number 10 – roughly five miles, as the pigeon flies, from where Howard Schultz, Starbucks executive chairman, grew up in Brooklyn’s Bayview Projects – is even more poetic given that two years ago Vasquez helped open the first community store in Jamaica, Queens.
Vasquez got her start as a barista in the Howard Beach store in late 2012. Hurricane Sandy had just battered the northeast coast and Vasquez immediately began signing up for community service projects. She said yes to almost every opportunity to volunteer, and after the neighborhood finished cleaning up after the hurricane, she created other community kinds of events at the store. Five months later Vasquez was promoted to shift supervisor, which is where Wrencher met her two years later and decided she’d be perfect to help open the first Starbucks community store.
“You can teach anybody to make a latte or a cappuccino. I was looking for the right people to embrace the concept of community and giving back, and Juanita was amazing,” said Wrencher, who has been a Starbucks partner for 20 years. Wrencher has her own meteoric Starbucks story: as a teenage mother whose parents were worried sick about her future, she became a barista and was promoted to store manager at 20. The first store she managed wasn’t just any store, it was the Starbucks on Wall Street. Since then, she’s purchased a home, sent one child to college, and is getting ready to send another. She’s also known for being a compassionate leader and fierce mentor.
It’s been an intense two years in the Jamaica, Queens, community store, which brought challenges and rewards beyond what either Wrencher or Vasquez expected. Because nearly all of the store’s employees were hired locally, the partners are sometimes affected by the same difficulties the neighborhood at large faces – homelessness, crime, incarceration, gun violence, mental health issues, and more.
“These are not regular stores,” Wrencher said. “Whatever’s going on in the community comes through our doors in a big way.”
As manager and assistant manager, Wrencher and Vasquez have marveled that no matter what their young employees are going through, the partners almost always show up to work.
“They’re here and clocking in even on the worst days. This is a safe haven,” Wrencher said. “It’s almost unreal. This is not something we expected at all, to come into the community and bring people together like this. There’s a bigger purpose here than just coffee.”
The store has a bustling schedule of community events – job training, mentorship meetings, open mic nights, and Coffee with a Cop, where officers from the local New York Police Department 103rd precinct drop by to visit with neighbors.
“The biggest lesson from our community stores, particularly from the Jamaica, Queens, store, is that partners there make it a rich customer experience because they’re from the community. They know the community. They know their customers,” said Rodney Hines, director of U.S. social impact for Starbucks.
He visited the store one day and was offered home cooking from a customer, a woman from Trinidad who regularly brings the Starbucks partners roti, chicken curry, or meat patties before ordering her venti Pike Place drip and hopping her bus to work. That customer recently lost everything in a house fire, and the Jamaica store team gathered clothes, shoes, and household supplies for her.
“When I met her, she said they have become her family here in the U.S., and I don’t think that’s isolated,” Hines said. “Those connections are reflected in the business. The store is doing well, and I think it’s doing well because of how they’ve made it personal and a welcoming place for the community. It’s exciting to see Juanita and other partners taking on a new community store in the neighborhood where she’s from.”
Life in ‘Little Puerto Rico’
Vasquez has a broad smile and a warm, friendly manner. She loves spending time with her family, painting, and drawing, and recently got a screen printer she’s been using to make throw pillows. Given her deeply set optimism and lifelong knack for community service you might expect her to print birds or flowers or uplifting quotes on her handcrafted pillows, but she started with the face of George Costanza.
“I’m a huge fan of ‘Seinfeld,’” she said, laughing.
Vasquez was born in Brownsville, a couple of miles from the new store, and raised in East New York. There, her family lived right next door to a church, where she served as a youth leader until she was 21.
“Growing up we did a lot of community service,” Vasquez said. “Working in the Starbucks community store is very similar to my regular home life. We have the same values. That’s what makes me love Starbucks so much.”
Vasquez and her family are tight – a big, supportive Puerto Rican “tribe.” Her father is a musician, and in the evenings, Vasquez did homework to the sounds of his conga band practicing in the living room. Sometimes she joined in with maracas. On Sunday mornings, the family would head down Broadway to “Little Puerto Rico” to get breakfast, usually sausage, mangu (mashed plantains), and fried cheese. Afterward, her parents would let her cross the street to Fat Albert’s department store to pick out some candy. That department store – where for years her family bought everything from sneakers to toothpaste to curtains – is in the same building as the new Starbucks. Full circle.
The store sits on Marcus Garvey Avenue and is a couple blocks away from Avenue of Puerto Rico. Similar to the store in Jamaica, Queens, Vasquez knows the Bed-Stuy community store – across the street from a hospital and a block from the Flushing Avenue subway stop – will present its own deep challenges and rewards.
“It’s a tough neighborhood that’s seen tough times. When I was a kid, I wasn’t allowed to walk around here by myself,” she said. “I'm sure that my team and I will do whatever we can. They're incredibly excited and wanting to help out. We will bring some brightness to this block and the community – that’s exactly why we’re here.”
Pouring her heart out
Now, back to that cup of coffee – the one that won Vasquez the job on the spot. It’s traditional for a partner to prepare a coffee tasting for a job interview, but Vasquez poured a little more than coffee into that cup. The blend included:
- Italian Roast coffee, the closest in character to the Café Bustelo she grew up drinking.
- One dulce de leche candy, which Vasquez and her sisters used to buy from the bodega and drop into their coffee to sweeten it as it melted.
- Stories. Stories about childhood and family and plantain breakfasts and shopping at Fat Albert’s department store. Stories about conga and jazz and parades and festivals and brownstone stoops and the graffiti above the entrance to the J Train.
- Lessons, tears, and triumphs from two years serving coffee and the community in Jamaica, Queens.
- And finally, hope – hope that Vasquez would have the chance to grow her own tree in Brooklyn.
“It was just so authentic and from the heart,” Ruffins said. “I don’t think that’s ever happened to me before, where I’ve been conducting an interview and become emotional. I got up and hugged her. She just gets it. We’re so lucky to have her.”