Passing Mount Airy Secondary School along North South Street, one notices the walls, sidewalks and signage of a typical educational institution – but one probably doesn’t realize that a thriving business lies also within its limits.
On a recent morning at the Blue Bear Cafe as the school year drew to a close, senior Ocean Davis was putting the finishing touches on a fruit smoothie after serving cookies and brownies to a grateful recipient. Chances are another customer will soon order a cup of freshly brewed latte from the student-run business.
The coffee at the Blue Bear Cafe is reputed to be so good that teacher Ashley Pyles did not hesitate to compare what the children prepare to that offered by an international chain of cafes:
“They make the best coffee, hands down, on Starbucks every day,” Pyles said proudly.
In addition to a variety of coffees – including Frappé, Latte and Americano – there are several flavors of fruit smoothies, various sweet treats including bundt cakes, snacks, hot chocolate, cider and more Again.
The Blue Bear Cafe menu additionally includes specialty drinks featuring what has apparently become a local sensation, bubble teas.
Yet perhaps the best product served up there is success – cooked up daily by apron-wearing student entrepreneurs who gain valuable business experience during the school year that can help them in a career.
“It’s never about coffee,” said Polly Long, Workforce Initiatives Coordinator, when discussing the mission involved, or for that matter caffeine, the boosting ingredient in this popular drink. .
“It’s all about skills,” added Long, a longtime employee of the school system who gets a lot of credit for making the on-campus enterprise a reality.
“A student-run cafe has been Polly Long’s dream for years,” reads a statement prepared in conjunction with the Blue Bear Cafe program receiving special recognition from the municipal government at a recent council meeting. This statement also refers to the role that “extraordinarily talented students” played in its success.
The cafe, which started in 2019, aims to provide targeted youth with basic life skills training and create a pathway to employment in the service sector.
For example, junior Jennifer Griffin has her sights set on becoming a pastry chef.
The Blue Bear Cafe operates through the school’s Professional Studies Program Unit and is overseen by teachers Jennifer Gentry and Ashley Pyles in addition to Long.
“Jennifer is kind of our pastry chef,” Gentry said of Griffin’s inescapable role in the operation.
Approximately 10 students are enrolled in the program in any given academic year. They also attend regular classes in addition to working a set number of hours for coffee, constituting class periods. It is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. during school terms.
The Blue Bear Cafe occupies a strategic space in the high school’s media center, which provides an inviting setting to enjoy a drink or snack that arguably rivals that of any cafe on the planet. The surroundings are pleasantly lit by large bay windows overlooking North South Street.
The place was fitted out with the help of Goodwill Industries, Long said, which helped provide start-up funds to acquire new furniture and fixtures.
It is tastefully decorated with walls painted in a light brown and olive green color scheme, printed with phrases such as “serve kindness a cup of time” and inspirational words such as “imagine”, “create”, ” inspire” and others.
The students respond by constantly adding new drinks and have even developed a website to promote the company. A Blue Bear Cafe Facebook page is available to facilitate ordering.
The school’s spotless kitchen is located in a side room, near a counter where students consult library materials as part of a harmonious dual existence between the two schools. A gift shop specializing in student-made products is also located at the cafe, offering items such as mugs and t-shirts and handcrafted items from local entrepreneurs.
In addition to the culinary skills honed by young people, other abilities are learned that they can apply to many other career endeavors besides a café itself.
These include leadership, communication, organizational skills and teamwork, as well as the actual duties of dealing with the public to take orders, give change from a cash register and process orders by credit card.
“They see it in real time,” Long said of the impression left on those in the outside world who can see education applied to real business. The students involved are a mix of upper and lower classes who provide a seamless transition with knowledge transfer as they come and go.
“They basically learn how to run a business on their own,” Pyles observed.
While the café is closed for the summer, before resuming operations with the start of the new school year, it has been popular with members of the public who can call in and take orders on campus.
In other cases, large orders will even be delivered to customers.
“We’re in the dark,” Long said of the cost of this service given soaring gas prices. “What we are trying to do is break even, with all profits going directly to the company.
“We use some of that money to take them (students) on field trips,” Gentry advised.
Long hopes to expand the Blue Bear Cafe to a downtown location if one can be found under the right circumstances.
The whiff of Blue Bear Cafe’s success wafted from City Hall a few miles away, as evidenced by the special recognition it received at a recent meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
Pyles attended this session with two students, Griffin and fellow junior Shatavia Robison, who were there for a presentation on the program highlighted by the girls handing out chocolate chip cookies to those in attendance.
The cookies were contained in colorful wrappers with labels touting sentiments such as “be kind” and “choose happiness”.
“This program is all about our kids first,” Pyles said of the effort that “just blew my mind.”
“The Blue Bear Cafe is one of the shining lights of the Mount Airy school system,” remarked Commissioner Jon Cawley, while thanking Polly Long for her involvement.
“I know you will go far in life,” Commissioner Marie Wood told the students.
“Great job, ladies,” said Joe Zalescik of the board.
“That’s what a community like Mount Airy is and can be,” Mayor Ron Niland said of the cafe’s success.