Web Exclusive: The Local Cup coffee shop turns next-door strangers into neighbors
“We lived here 12 years and never really had relationships with anyone in the neighborhood, but The Local Cup community changed all of that,” says Twila Newbill, who lives on the northwest side of South Bend just down the street from The Local Cup coffee shop. “Before we’d just see people in passing. Now we know their names and their kids.”
Twila’s family lives in a home that was rehabbed by the Near Northwest Neighborhood Inc. (NNN), which launched The Local Cup in the spring of 2015. “I like coffee and we literally live on the same street,” she says. “I just throw on my Saturday clothes and walk down there.”
Twila’s outgoing 17-year-old daughter, Aireal, got their family connected to the coffee shop when she started volunteering there soon after it opened inside the NNN building on Portage Avenue.
“Aireal is the one who rounds up her friends and brings them out to an adopt-a-block cleanup event,” says Brook Hardy during a weekly Tuesday-night student intern meeting. “She’s really a connector and she does a good job of reaching out and inviting people.”
The Local Cup’s mission is centered on that same principle of inviting, building and strengthening community, says Hardy, who helped start the coffee shop with her husband, John, and another couple, Mike and Catherine Griffin. Now she volunteers as the student internship coordinator.
“I’m continually amazed at the way The Local Cup has a life of its own. For example, a few weeks after we opened, a few teen neighbors became volunteers. Then a few more. We didn’t even really look for them, they just showed up,” says Hardy. “By June, we were having teen volunteer training meetings, and in September we started our fall paid internship program.”
Student interns and neighborhood volunteers run The Local Cup, which is characterized by mismatched chairs, exposed wooden beams and local street signs drawn in chalk around the ceiling perimeter. The shop serves pour-over coffee using sustainably sourced and locally roasted beans from Zen Café and Bendix Coffee. Mochas feature house-made organic chocolate syrup and whipped cream, spiced cider comes from Michigan apples and locally baked goods include South Bend-based Cyn’s Fruitful Muffins.
Twila says it’s fun to watch Aireal learn how to be a part of a working world and interact with so many new people in this safe environment. “She has to be responsible and be on time. She gets to see all the neighbors and she knows everyone now,” says Twila, a family case manager for the state of Indiana. “Before this, she never could understand how I worked with the people I worked with. But in this coffee shop setting you’re going to meet people from all walks of life, so that’s good for her.”
The Local Cup uses a pay-it-forward model in an effort to create a warm, welcoming environment for everyone. This means that your coffee will already have been paid for by someone ahead of you. If you like, you can place a cash donation in a mug on the counter when you order to pay for someone after you and support the shop, which relies on donations and grants to cover operating costs. They recently started taking donations by credit and debit card because so many people asked for that option.
“The whole idea behind The Local Cup is to nurture relationships and create a sense of community in our neighborhood,” says Amy Larrison Gillan, a Saint Mary’s College professor and volunteer at the shop. “We embrace the positives of living in such a diverse neighborhood. The Local Cup is a place where everyone can get together and feel comfortable and enjoy each other and learn from each other.”
More than Coffee
Qilong (chee-long) Lu settled in the Near Northwest neighborhood with his family 33 years ago when he left China to work as an electronics technician in the University of Notre Dame’s physics department. His children have since grown up, moved out of state and started families of their own. He retired about 11 years ago and volunteers at Work One, the NNN and The Local Cup. Funny thing is, he doesn’t drink The Local Cup coffee; he just comes for the community.
“My home is like a big coffin,” says Lu, who likes to meet new people and practice his English. “Everybody here is my friend.”
That sense of belonging to a community is what The Local Cup is all about, says Mike Griffin, director of service learning at Holy Cross College. “I love Mr. Lu,” says Mike, who also helped start the shop. “He’s a local guy, immigrant from China. Came to this neighborhood, lives alone, doesn’t have family here, but he’s found a family here and he’s plugged in. From day one, he just showed up. And he became our head greeter, busser, ambassador! So that’s what I really love, when people can plug in and really find a place.”
Recently retired Indiana University sociology and sustainability studies professor Mike Keen has made the coffee shop a meeting place to brainstorm ways to improve the neighborhood. “It’s like ‘Cheers.’ You come here two or three times and everybody’s going to know your name,” says Keen. “We just created a new company called Thrive. We’re working with New Energy Homes, Lehman & Lehman landscape design company and Inovateus Solar in partnership with the NNN and Habitat for Humanity to work on highly energy-efficient homes in the neighborhood. We want to show that these homes could be built in an existing neighborhood—a template, if you will.”
Keen says that The Local Cup community is moving the Thrive project forward. “I would not be as excited or quite as willing to embark on this energy project if The Local Cup wasn’t going,” he says. “Now there’s this sense of energy and excitement in the neighborhood. People are looking at the neighborhood with new eyes.”