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Gaining Grounds

CoffeeFirst is impacting people recovering from mental health illnesses, incarceration, or addiction, all while serving up sensational Topeca Coffee.

Rob Harmon
Sarah Eliza Roberts
February 28, 2020

What happens when a coffee shop opens for the dual purpose of giving back to its community and making a great cup of coffee?

From the sound of it, that question may have already been answered in the short life of the Mental Health Association Oklahoma’s (MHAOK) newest social enterprise. CoffeeFirst is a sleek, full-service coffee kiosk, impacting people recovering from mental health illnesses, incarceration, or addiction, all while serving up sensational coffee. Since setting up shop in a lobby corner of Legacy Plaza, the response has been overwhelming.

Community partners, community members, and employees within the complex have all expressed tremendous support for the coffee destination. They love the product and the social impact it makes. The adjacent Hoover neighborhood has begun to show appreciation, with praises through comments on their social media page. Additionally, Cass Fahler, the city councilor for District 5, where CoffeeFirst resides, showed his support by enthusiastically attending the grand opening this past December.

MHAOK and the program’s supervisor, Clara Correa, see CoffeeFirst as a form of therapy.

“A lot of times, people achieve mental well-being through employment,” Correa says. “We operate from the principle that work is therapy.”

Correa, who has overseen the project since its inception, has met all financial and other challenges with an exuberant spirit of positivity. A recent graduate of the Oral Roberts University social work program, Correa has enjoyed applying her education to the project but has also taken an on-the-job fast-track course in social entrepreneurship.

“One of the main challenges was getting capital,” she says. “For a nonprofit, it is a little bit different because we relied on grants. We applied for some local grants, as well as national grants. We did get the ones that we wanted, but that was a difficult process.”

To improve her learning curve, Correa got in touch with individuals who had started successful businesses. The crew from another social enterprise, T-Town Tacos, provided information on offering an excellent product while reaching and employing underrepresented populations. Justin Carpenter from Foolish Things and Topeca Coffee trainer Tyler Duncan lent their expertise in the area of coffee brewing. “They were a giant help,” Correa says.

A $50,000 Bank of America Neighborhood Champions grant and another grant of $20,000 from the Starbucks Foundation will allow CoffeeFirst to meet its first financial goal of staying afloat for the first year. However, in spite of such a robust beginning, Correa isn’t satisfied. The next business goal for the midtown endeavor is to become self-sustaining. Since before they opened, the coffee kiosk has looked for ways to become viable within the first six to eight months.

“We are not trying to renew the grants,” Correa says, “because, just as we stress financial self-sustainability with our employees, as part of the program, we want to be able to echo that in our business practices.”

Aside from expected challenges, CoffeeFirst has experienced other surprises along the way.

“A lot of the surprises have been positive,” Correa says. “I expected to be more tired. People always talk about how exhausting it is — starting your own business — but with my degree, I know the importance of taking care of your brain.”

The incredible reward of working alongside her two baristas and the inspiring stories they bring daily has been another remarkable experience, Correa says.

“I have been shocked at how this has been such a positive experience on my life,” she says. “Yes, it is tiring at times, mostly at the beginning stages, but it has been shocking how not only does this impact the community but those directly involved.”

One of CoffeeFirst’s baristas was recruited from a 2-year-old program, A Better Way. That program is a combined initiative of MHAOK and the City of Tulsa aimed at helping panhandlers and people experiencing homelessness find gainful employment. Not only has she found work as a barista, but she has also secured permanent housing as a result of being a part of the program.

“It just goes to show how our programs interact and bolster each other,” Correa says.

CoffeeFirst’s other barista experienced a justice system hiccup after culinary school, says Correa, but has been a considerable part of CoffeeFirst’s early success, truly a home-run hire.

“She brings on a lot of talent, knowledge, and skill that has been a big part of why we’ve been successful,” says Correa. “She was able to pick up on how to steam milk and help me learn. On top of that, she is good at cooking and baking, so she is helping us develop a menu for CoffeeFirst.”

Correa says that perhaps the most surprising development throughout the entire process is the overwhelming response people have had to their main product, Topeca Coffee.

Topeca Coffee handpicks the ripest coffee cherries from their farms in El Salvador and roasts them right here in Tulsa, creating some of the richest aromatic coffee around. Locals and visitors to Tulsa have enjoyed their coffee at the Philcade Building and Hyatt Regency locations, as well as Hodges Bend.

“People not only believe in what we’re doing, but they love the product,” says Correa. “That’s important because social enterprises need to do something good for the community and serve a good product. The fact that we get to do that is really special, and people see it.”

5330 E. 31st St. | Tulsa