About that day to breathe...

Well, if you have been by on a Sunday in October, our incredible employees are there, serving you exceptional coffee, delicious crepes, and meaningful connections to go with it. Our closed on Sunday experiment didn’t work the way I hoped. 

One thing was true, the employees loved it. One person told me the second week in she’s never taken a consistent break like that and she felt so much happier directly linking it to having Sundays off. Tips were up too. As employees, they collectively worked 100 less hours and yet they made $400 more in tips in a two week period.*  ** I felt the joy of being uninterrupted and single focused and so in many ways it felt right. 

But there wasn’t enough income, and if I couldn’t make payroll, then no employee would feel happier. So I hit the streets to find more customers. Standing on a main street corner, just a block from our shop, I handed out coupons to people who raved about loving us and then I watched them walk into a different establishment with their coupon.  I felt defeated, but not quite. Especially when I ran into an old friend who was excited we’d ventured out into catering. After I forced myself to keep smiling and hand out that whole stack of coupons to remind people that our cozy and local cafe was worth the walk one block back, I returned to my desk in the basement of Neighborhoods. There on the computer, I already had an email from my old friend requesting one of our biggest catering orders yet with promises for future ones if it went well. I saw the muffins, croissants, and scones in terms of dollar signs. Maybe this was my big ticket that would make us busy enough six days a week to make up for closing on the seventh.

Her email was near a new one from Caviar- the exclusive delivery company that picks us, instead of us picking them. Think GrubHub marketed with beauty. They were reaching out to work with me and even to send out a professional photographer. They came. And their pictures were pretty. And then Grubhub came too, also sending an artsy photographer with a charming accent. She stood on chairs to take top-down shots, adjusted the lighting with her special blinds, and made our food look as good as it tastes.  Now we had Caviar, GrubHub, Ritual and Postmates. Maybe with the catering, and all the online ordering, this was the way though?!

But each day, though it was close, the writing was on the wall that barring a true miracle, it wouldn’t be a viable business plan by the end of the month.  So I prayed for a miracle, and I expected one. Since I started trusting God just over twenty years ago, I’ve never taken a step of faith and not watched the bridge materialize under my feet as I walked across a canyon. But not everyone gets a miracle every time. Have you ever had a good friend who struggled with infertility? As a grateful mother of four, I think about a wonderful friend, who would seem to make an even more wonderful mother, waiting each month and coming up short on her dream, and the sorrow runs through my heart. Needing money to keep a business open and wanting a child to join your family are two entirely different struggles, but both are something you think you can get if you just play your cards right and yet both are barely beyond our grasp of control.  So as I thought about the let down of re-opening on Sundays, I had fresh compassion for all the people out there waiting on their one thing that would likely add value to their life- a new child, a clear from cancer, a not-guilty sentence when they were wrongly accused. My having to be open on Sundays seemed pretty small. 

Ironically, I still got a miracle. Someone generously gifted my husband with money because they appreciated it that we were trying to honor a break each week with our business.  They unknowingly chose to give him the same amount of money I usually pay myself per month. So personally, we lacked nothing. But as for the business, at the end of September, we didn’t have enough for every bill.  Wisdom said, we had to reopen. I was curious if people would even come if we reopened. Amazingly, we sold more last Sunday than we had on any Sunday since a humming, sun-shining Sunday in April, and we did a good job serving people. It was busy, and it was well played. 

That first Sunday back, I was there from open till 2 serving people coffee and making them tasty crepes and having a wonderful time. The Saturday after the reopen was busy enough that it would have kept us afloat if it would have only come a week sooner, and I would have wanted to hang in there and try another month of my experiment.  Instead, it came too little too late. And I’m left with more questions than answers, though I do have more catering orders than we did last October. I waited to post this because I was trying to figure out how to tie up the conclusion with a nice bow. But I can’t figure out how, so instead I post as is. Because there are lots of people who have their own struggles, more significant than this one, and there aren’t always fairy tale endings to tie as a bow around their unfulfilled dream. So we wait, together. And you can come in and talk to me about it, even on a Sunday because I just might be there. 

*Each employee still received the number of hours they usually had, but essentially we shrunk the number of people on the staff, not the number of hours each person worked. Since reopening, I’ve had to hire new people. 

**Going forward, I did set up a Sunday team and a Saturday team and have the goal to let each individual have a consistent day off and not work back to back weekend days, but without being totally closed there’s no guarantee as people reuqest off and unexpected things happen.

A Day to Breathe

Most Americans, who have enough, but still want more, know that something has to give to get quiet more often. Space has to be intentionally created to have time to sit and laugh a little longer.  Time has to be carved out, set-up, sometimes further than three weeks away from next Thursday to meet that friend for a walk. So we work for it. Always the steady dripping in the back of our mind, ‘maybe if we just work a little harder, we’ll have more margin,’ read money, to be able to do the things slowly that we long for, so we keep unwaveringly pushing. But maybe if we push a little harder, we’ll just be tired. 

It’s Sunday. It’s another day to push and hurry and accomplish something, grow something, make something better. Whatever you do, do something, but not nothing. Be able to say you did something, ‘got some extra work done’ or ‘finished that project’. Anything, but not nothing. Monday comes and people come, tired.  And they start again. Maybe they go to mid-week or midday classes to try to help their mind still. They wait for their phone on their wrist to beep at them bossing them into breath because they know it feels like they aren’t quite getting enough air living in this hurried rush. 

In my own life, I make time one day a week- less house-work, less technology ringing at me telling me what to do or where to be. I move away from the machine that optimizes which article is likely to keep me looking down reading on my phone.  Instead, it's books, trees, walks, outside time, gardening, board games- these are the things that refresh me while taking a break once a week. It isn’t perfect, and sometimes it must be interrupted (usually by a call from Neighborhoods!) but it seems to help me do the other days better than if I hadn’t had a break. I have limitations if I only work and never stop. Then there’s Neighborhoods. It never breathes, never really rests: 7 days, most 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.  Even though employees get days off, they don’t all get one on the same day. They don’t have one guaranteed day each week where their phone will never interrupt them with a request to cover or help out a friend. 

So this fall, at Neighborhoods, I’m going to practice in my business what I attempt to practice in my home life. We’re going to reverse the trend of trying to do more to get more, and instead we’re going to slow first. Maybe by slowing first, we’ll end up with what we couldn’t achieve by trying harder and have the ability, read time, to use it to enjoy relationships.  Maybe we’ll just end up with less money and better relationships. Either way, we are going to close on Sundays to give the business a chance to breathe. 

Do you know what the employees did when I announced this big news at our fall staff meeting last Sunday? After the shocked faces, small shrieks, and surprised wonder, they began planning what they would do together, staying after the staff meeting had ended to brainstorm which Sunday they would go pumpkin picking.  I hope they invite me because they make me laugh, and now we all have time to laugh a little longer. Come see us soon and experience if we aren’t ready to serve you, even better than before, just don’t come on a Sunday!

Sentiment before taste... in the 'memories of coffee series'

My second reflection on coffee is still about a sentiment and not yet about taste. It was almost ten years before I had my next cup of coffee. I was 14, a freshman, and a few sophomore guys invited me to go drink coffee and play board games at “Liquid 360.” It was the cool coffee shop, one town over. We didn’t have any coffee shops in my town. We had barely gotten our first stoplight, let alone a trendy coffee shop with chess and Trivial Pursuit.  But these guys had cars and could drive to the next town. They were also respectful safe guys who did their homework and liked art, reading, and music, so my mom let me go. I’m sure there were other girls there, but embarrassingly, I can’t remember them. I can only remember how cool I felt standing with them looking around at the iron spiral staircase that you carried your games and drinks up to get to the second floor lounge. There were even college kids, studying and laughing. I also remember not knowing what to to order.  My friend Matt helped me decide on a white chocolate mocha. They couldn’t believe I’d never “got coffee” before, and I couldn’t believe they had invited me along. I don’t remember what the coffee tasted like that night either, but I remember wanting to go back. Not just for coffee but for belonging. And we did go back, lots.


Eventually, my high school girlfriends and I also starting “getting coffee.” You could get your license at 14.5, which I see South Dakota is the last state to still entrust them that young. Montana has since moved things up to 15, and sadly added a speed limit, but by our sophomore year, we too had cars and independence. We too had access to coffee shops a few towns over and when we went, I always got a white chocolate mocha and felt cool.  But I got more than that. I got laughter and shared secrets and tears, some probably about those sophomore boys who had become juniors. It was about being somewhere with your friends. The coffee wasn’t the pull yet, the time together somewhere outside your small world was. It counted as ‘doing something’. ‘Want to do something?’ ‘Sure what.’ ‘I don’t know?’ ‘What do you want to do?’ ‘We could get coffee.’ Somewhere after bike rides were cool and before drinking other beverages was normal, there was a coming of age story with coffee, and it mattered more the flavor of the moment than the taste in the cup. So when did I start caring about good coffee? Only seven years ago, when I was choosing our supplier.

Memories of coffee, the first of a series...

I don’t remember my first cup of lemonade. I don’t remember the first time I had a Coke. I don’t even remember the first time I had an ice-cream cone. But I remember the first time I had a sip of coffee. My dad let me have a whole cup, likely with more milk than extracted caffeine.  I have no memory how it tasted, nor would my underdeveloped coffee palette have been a qualified critic, but I remember clearly how it felt.

Our family was on a ski vacation, and we were staying in a home with friends from my parents’ college.  My dad and I were the first two people up. We were always the first two up. He was making coffee, and I was sitting on one of those tall stools at a high-top kitchen island- a peninsula actually; it was connected at the corner and jutted out into the kitchen space.  He asked me if I wanted my own cup. I was probably 6 or 7, but in that moment I felt as mature as an adult. Of course I wanted my own cup! He poured his and then poured mine, with a ‘little’ milk and I sipped it hot, special, quiet. I don’t remember what it tasted like. I only remember the joy of the moment, feeling like I was part of the special grown up world, not left out or too little even in my kid pajamas, probably still with footies, which I wore until they didn’t make them in my size.  Then his friends were up and treated me like I belonged with the grown-ups too. I got to listen and be part of their morning, sitting on my stool, swinging my feet, sipping my coffee. They made breakfast, drank from their own mugs, and included me in their old stories without talking down to me or changing phrases for their audience.  I felt part of it, included and happy.

It wasn't about how it tasted. It was about how it felt. What we sense impacts what we taste, child and adult. My tastes have evolved since then, and I know now it isn't just about how it feels. Exceptional coffee is about how it tastes too. But that memory is just the first in my coffee journey and it tasted good as an experience even if I'll never know its flavor palette.   

The work life balance?

If you’re trying to write a regular blog, it’s hard to decide what people would want to read about. There are things I’d want to write about- like gardening, fascinating people you meet on the bus, or the confluence of religion and spices in 15th century sea exploration.  But I don’t know who would want to read about them or what they have to do with Neighborhoods. Although both today and yesterday I was taste testing multiple options for the right spring chai, which I now know has its word origin linked to 16th century Indian tea and spices.  Maybe there is a link there, but it probably only appeals to a very narrow audience.

Yesterday I was working on the floor and having a wonderful time when one of our regulars came in and said how much he loved reading the blog so far.  He encouraged and inspired me to write something again because he liked reading the stories.  An employee suggested I share how I live out the work/life balance of a small business owner.  The customer’s enthusiasm gave me some confidence it may interest someone besides her and my mom, who likes anything I do.

I have four human children, but I’ve birthed five. We joke that we had a child every two years. The first one came in June of 2006, just ten months into our marriage, our second eighteen months after that, and our third child twenty-one months later. Then Neighborhoods, the fourth child, was born in November of 2012 six years after my first born.  You may think I had enough on my plate, but somehow in 2013,  all I wanted was another sweet baby. It’s pretty special when the Dr. hands them to you with those tiny fists, red scrunched faces, and curled up toes. They cut the umbilical cord, put a thin little pink and blue striped hat on their pointed head, and if everything is according to plan, you’re immediately holding a brand new human against your skin to give them comfort from the fluorescent lights and a chilly wide world. It took some convincing, probably because my husband didn’t want me to have a nervous breakdown, but my argument that someone was still missing at the dinner table finally won him over.  And so in 2014, two years into Neighborhoods, little Benjamin joined the party.  

Most small businesses, especially restaurants, fail within the first three years. Some say 20% in year one, 60% by year three and I’ve seen the number 80% next to the word failure by year five.  Who knows how ‘they’ are gathering all the statistics, and if they’re accurate, but it’s true that some restaurants fail. I know. I still have that equipment given to me from a tea house that went under.  It’s great to have the pastry case, stainless steel tables, and extra fridges, but it makes you a little more aware when the equipment included an orange Hawaiian crayon bag that now sits in our homeschool cabinet and has their daughter’s name on it. When the bank took everything back, they weren’t allowed to go in and clean out anything.  The crayon owner’s middle name was Grace. Just like my second daughter’s.  So why, when you started a new business, that you heard was more likely to fail than succeed, would you be hungry to add in a baby who would have to nurse every two and a half hours?

Because it’s not about the money.  Maybe I could give my life just to Neighborhoods and work seventy hours a week, knocking on every door to hand each resident a free coffee coupon so that they know where to find the hidden gem of restaurant row and I could make more money. Or I could go with my son on his scooter to go advertise together and hit fewer residences. Somewhere in that one to three year mark, a week came that we weren’t going to have enough to pay our employees, let alone ourselves.  I needed to be working, but it was a ‘home’ day.   I was pregnant and the girls were in co-op (I homeschool, but that’s a different story too!) and just Nathan and I were together.  So it become a both home and work day.  My then four year old son rode his Lightning McQueen scooter up and down Peterborough Street and helped me tape up a “Buy one crepe, get one half off sign.”  I would rip the scotch tape, and he would hang the signs.  We went up Peterborough, down Queensberry, and all along Park Drive, hanging our signs and overcoming a challenge. Together. And when the residents came out in force the next day for their buy one, get one free crepes, no one was more excited at dinner to hear that we made payroll than him.  Well maybe no one. I was pretty excited too.    

Because what life is really about is relationships.  If you do it all alone and put money as your highest priority, even above people, there’s no one who fully identifies with that agonized deep breath in or that joy filled laugh out loud.  Money really only has value in relationship to people.  And relationships flourish in team. Even God, the Judeo-Christian God, works in team: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit serving alongside each other.  Plus when you have limits, such as time, you have to lean on others.  So at Neighborhoods, it isn’t a one man (or one woman) show.  It’s the employees working together that kill it on a Saturday, and at that point, they’re not really working for me or for their hourly wage. In the busiest moments, they are usually working for each other.  And somehow those hardest days are the ones people talk about almost as if they may have liked them most- but I bet it wasn’t merely because they performed well and served customers well and made extra tips. I bet it was because they performed well together, and that made it worth something beyond money.  

It’s also not about the temporal.  Delaying having children because I ought to have invested more time in my business would not have been a long run decision.  Have you seen the Fenway lately?  At the rate it’s changing, I may or may not have a lease there in ten more years.   But barring a tragedy, I’ll still have a Benjamin.  

And yet, investing in my business is important.  Healthy things grow. Money is, in fact, a barometer of a healthy business.  We use money to help our family live, eat, buy that scooter to go up and down Peterborough, and to help others too- paying their salaries, their wages and sharing with some who don’t have.

So how do you choose what to do and where to invest time? A wise and lovely woman once told me to think of life like a tapestry that you are spending your life to weave.  Your marriage is a piece of that tapestry, each child is a piece of that tapestry, your work is a piece of that tapestry, insert the things you feel compelled to invest in here.  And it’s about seasons.  So some seasons you really invest in one more than another but it’s all one life. It’s not compartmentalized.  That’s helped me each year. Each day actually.  Because you can see when something is tearing and you need to pay extra attention to it, or when something is growing and you need to guide and shape the emerging beauty out of it.  So I try to live that way--to look and watch and invest where I can, when I can, in the best way I know how at the time.  Sometimes you miss out on soccer games and sometimes you miss out on steaming milk, but if you do it all in team, there is still someone else to cheer or serve.  And so you can do anything, together, which actually makes whatever’s birthed more beautiful.

Today I read an email from someone with the Center for Woman and Enterprise, that exceptional organization that helped me find Hank, the furniture business owner and ultimate refiner of business plans. It seems I’ve been nominated for “The Rising Star Award,” and she loved reading my “story” on our blog.  I don’t think she loved it just because I gave them a thank you where the shout out was due. I think we love stories because we’re human.  So I’ve decided even if I write about spices, as long as I keep it human, read vulnerable and a bit of true conflict that is overcome, the audience will be encouraged and that’s a gift we can give every person.   


Why no Nutella?

It’s about convictions. People go out of their way every day to make a choice for something they want- a trip to the gym in order to be kind to their heart, a trip to the couch in order to catch their favorite show. And for every choice, there is also a giving up of something else.  In my life it’s usually time, the commodity I trade most regularly.  And if you look at how you spend your time, it’s always a reflection of what you value. But the same is true of money. If you look at how you spend it, you’ll have a clear window into what you care about.  

I want to care about people, and I hope to live that out in principle as well as theory.  We said one of our values was integrity in every process.  It is really a privilege to build your own small business where you get to pick what ingredients you use and be in charge of from where they’re sourced.  If you have buying power, you have power. And if you have power, you can use it to serve others and make an impact that matters.  

Around 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa.   In the process of growing and harvesting the cocoa, children have often been forced to work against labor laws (1). Additionally, many women are taken advantage of, receiving less pay than men and finding it harder to have access to buy their own land then men (2). And the men, even if they’re making more than women, are still not being paid enough to get above the poverty line (3).  (So sorry, I couldn't get it it to do small footnotes in this blog!)

Fair Trade is a relatively recent convention. It’s true that its results may not be only positive.  If you read about it, you’ll see a common criticism is that only wealthier farms have the skills and resources available to become fair trade certified, so that buying fair trade can actually take away livelihood from the poorest farmers.  But at least if you buy fair trade, you’re buying into higher pay for the harvesters, gender equality where men and women are paid equally for the same job and inspectors who see that child labor laws are enforced, enabling children to head to the schools instead of the fields.  I’m no expert, but it’s better than not doing anything.  And if some people can receive better pay, better access to water, and better access to education because of it, I want to make sure it’s what we’re spending our buying power on.  

So when we opened, I began to choose our ingredients.  Kristy, our other manager, helped me be mindful of all things fair trade.  She found us “Choco dream” A Belgian Fair Trade Chocolate Hazlenut spread.  That’s why at Neighborhoods, when you order a Sweet Simplicity, you won't get Nutella. And when you order a homemade chocolate chip cookie, every chocolate chip in that 100 grams of homemade cookie (we use my mother-in-law’s recipe by the way) is fair trade.  And that’s true of our tea and our coffee too. In theory, everyone says people are more important than things, so let’s put it in practice together.  Whenever you use your buying power on our coffee, tea, homemade pastries with chocolate chips or crepes with fair trade hazelnut spread, you’re not just supporting a local small business, you’re valuing fair trade for the people behind the product. 

1. https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/equality-for-women-starts-with-chocolate-mb-260213.pdf

2. https://www.oxfam.org/sites/www.oxfam.org/files/equality-for-women-starts-with-chocolate-mb-260213.pdf

3. https://www.laborrights.org/industries/cocoa

4. https://wfto.com/fair-trade/10-principles-fair-trade

5. https://www.laborrights.org/industries/cocoa
6. http://www.fairtrade.org.uk/Farmers-and-Workers/Cocoa/Kuapa-Kokoo

Why George Howell?

Neighborhoods was only about two months away from opening, and I still hadn’t settled on a roaster. I was looking for exceptional coffee that cared about the grower and was without a precocious attitude, which can sometimes run through the artisan coffee industry. It had to be fair trade, small batch roasted, with growers who were so identifiable that I could know their working conditions myself. Though I found some places that cared about the grower, I couldn’t truly say whether or not it was exceptional coffee. The main problem was that I’d only ever worked at Starbucks and didn’t have a well developed palate.   

Again, another friend to the rescue. His name was Cabell and he was known in the Boston coffee industry. At the time, he worked for the Thinking Cup and had won lots of latte art championships. He’s gone on to be the Latte Art World Champion three times since we’ve opened. He also has 44.9k followers on Instagram: two things I learned just now when I googled him to spell his name correctly for his shout out. At least for what I intended to be a shout out, after reading about him these days it appears to be more like name dropping. Anyway, he by all means knew what exceptional coffee tasted like. So, I wrote to roasters all over the U.S. and they sent us samples, Intelligentsia, MadCap- other buzzword and excellent names in the world of coffee. They would send me their coffee. He would come over and taste it with Charlotte, Kristy and I and tell us what we should be noticing. I didn’t know what a coffee bloom was until he brought his own kettle, showed us how to pour it and explained what good coffee should be doing. (In case you’re wondering, a “coffee bloom” is simply the given name for when the hot water contacts the grounds and Co2 is released creating a “bloom”. It rises up in a beautiful way and changes to a lighter color. I’d like to meet whoever coined it; it’s a great word choice.) He would pick apart the bean and tell me about the color and the shell, throwing away $20 bags of coffee because they weren’t worth our time. And he did it just to be nice and because he loved coffee. He taught us many things about coffee, training our palette, having fun, and building our knowledge.  

A local name kept coming up in the tastings, George Howell. When someone who sent me samples all the way from Iowa mentioned him as a standard in the industry for quality, and I knew George Howell was right around the corner from us, I thought I should probably take it as a sign and knock on their door for some samples. Before I could, I got a direct email from the George Howell roastery in Acton. I hadn’t contacted them, but they were inviting me out to taste their coffees! How could I not go? The ironic thing was that they had heard about me because they were thinking about renting the very storefront in which I was currently setting up shop.    

When I went out and met George Howell, I met a man with integrity who cared about the bean and cared about the people. I met his wife, whom he had been married to for over 25 years. I met his daughter and son, two out of their six kids, who were working with them in their adventure. And I met a dog- I wish I knew whose he was or at least his name to make the story better. But he was great: friendly and obedient. In fact, if I remember correctly, he didn’t cross the threshold of the office when the rest of us went to taste coffee together. Probably a health code trained dog. George Howell  had started the Coffee Connection in 1974 and when Starbucks wanted to come to Boston from Seattle in 1994, they bought his stores to put their product in. He said it came at just the right moment. He had twenty-four stores and at the time, though people had dabbled in artisan roasting and artisan brewing, the grower was somewhat of an uncharted territory. He told me you could get a bag of green coffee with the words “Kenya” on it, and you had no idea where it was really grown. So he took some of his earnings from Starbucks and headed overseas to invest and explore in the growing process. George cared about the grower before it was trending and almost single handedly invented the “Cup of Excellence.” This was an award that started back in 1995 to raise the growing quality of the bean, while also raising the price roasters would offer. I had met a man who initiated a way to lift the quality of bean and quality of life simultaneously. On that day at the roasters, I learned so many things, and I enjoyed my experience with them and their exceptional coffee. They even said they would help me train my employees for free, my employees who I had yet to hire, by the way. They said they would train them because they cared about how their coffee tasted and wanted to bring out the best of their beans.  I had obviously met people who it felt like were pursuing the same goals as us. Even Cabell approved of the choice.   

Two months later, a week away from opening, we were being trained by an amazing barista named Sal, who was then working for George Howell coffee company.  He was teaching my employees (wonderful people who also deserve their own blog post one day!) and I all about the importance of how long a shot is in contact with the water for ideal extraction. In the downtime, he asked me why I was starting the coffee shop. Somehow faith came into the story and he said my faith reminded him of his wife’s. ‘She’s connected to Brighton?’ ‘We know people in Brighton’. ‘Who in Brighton?’ ‘Where in Brighton?' 'I know them! In fact that’s my husband’s parents.’ It turned out, Sal and his wife were newlyweds, and as we unraveled the story, it became clear that my father-in-law was his wife's pastor and had just officiated their wedding ceremony only two months earlier.  Then it dawned on me that more than one person in my father-in-law’s circle had told me of Sal and that I needed to meet him to learn from him. There he was standing in Neighborhoods training us. Small world. George Howell was already helping people connect at Neighborhoods and we hadn’t even opened. And we continue to serve their exceptional coffee and nurture meaningful relationships.  

And George Howell coffee continues to match our vision. They are still the family run small business, even though they’re well known and have a big impact. They are small enough to buy small lot sizes, direct trade, and single source, without having to blend beans to get enough for their customers. They continue to travel and visit the growers. By the time we opened, they trained us well, much thanks to Sal, and they continue to provide training and support. Instead of being precocious, they value education for everyone- including the consumer. Please come in, join the conversation, and taste and learn for yourself. Who knows, we may find out we have something in common besides coffee.

A Story of Mine...

Every human has a story. I have lots. And my best ones involve plenty of risk.  I have a story of how I said yes to my husband’s proposal when I was just twenty-two and we hadn’t even held hands yet. Or the story of when I moved to France from small-town Montana to live with a host family for eleven months because I didn’t want to live with my mom and new stepdad (both of whom are wonderful!). I was only fifteen and couldn’t even speak French.  But this isn’t about either of those stories. This is the story of the time when I decided to start a beautiful cafe in the Fenway even though I had three children under the age of five and had never been to business school.

betsy's photo shoot.jpg

Seven years ago, the Peterborough strip, affectionately known by locals as Restaurant Row, sat  empty after a fire had burnt down the entire row.  I would play at the park across the street with my three little people who were then around four, two, and barely one.  Having worked in coffee at Starbucks the first few years of our marriage, and having known the neighborhood well from living in the Fenway the previous ten years, I would stare at the row from the playground and wonder why someone wasn’t putting in a really good independent coffee shop.   Meanwhile, I loved being a mom, but also really enjoyed connecting with people and missed the days of college where there were endless opportunities to make new friends. 

One weekend, it came to me like a vision - I could open a coffee shop where people could have an exceptional cup of coffee and meet their neighbors in a meaningful way.  But could I really do it? I told my husband my idea. He thought I was crazy.  But he loved me for my quality of always wanting to jump.  He, being more practical and having been to business school, instead of just squelching my dream right away, he said, ‘write a business plan, get a team, and see if it’s viable.’

A business plan? I googled it.  Then I started to work using a template I’d found online and stayed up many late nights to write an executive summary.  A friend of a friend who had graduated with a master’s in business and couldn’t find a job yet, wanted to know if she could help me so she could put it on her resume if I ever opened. I told her "Sure, sounds great."  She sent me a template for a business plan. This turned into more late nights putting the kids to bed, working until 1:30AM or so, going to bed just to wake up with them again at 5:30AM. Maintaining the priority to be an intentional thoughtful mom.  Saturday morning, soccer practice! My husband would take the kids and leave me two whole day-time hours to work on my dream.  ‘Would it be financially viable? How long would it take before we could open? How much would it cost? And most importantly, where would we source our coffee?’ I began to research and fill in the questions.

Meanwhile, whenever we ate at El Pelon, which had gallantly reopened, I’d walk around the patio of the empty storefront two doors down and pray God would hold the spot for me.  Outlining the space I wanted to call our coffee shop with my feet, I would ask Him to let no one else take it until I had a plan.  

Who was already running a coffee shop that would sit down with me? Quite a few people actually:  the man who founded the Haley House, the owner of Cafe Nation in Brighton, the man who owns Athan’s bakery, my old boss at Starbucks.  They were all kind.  And so I found time to meet with them and keep researching.  

But would coffee be enough? My husband said, ‘why don’t you do crepes?’ He thought on a hunch that people loved crepes and there weren’t many creperies nearby.  Crepes resonated with me. Remember my study abroad? We ate delicious crepes that year in my host's home.  I emailed my host family. Would they pass me their recipe? I converted it from litres to cups, and made them in my own home to test it out with family crepe night.  Delicious.  And so I ran the numbers for crepe ingredients and wrote it into my business plan.

Now, I had gotten to the point where I needed a lawyer to follow up with information about incorporating, taxes, insurance.  I had a friend who lived down the hall who was a lawyer at one of the best firms in Boston. She wasn’t supposed to help us out without billing us, and we didn’t have any extra money, even for cheap lawyers, but she told me how to contact this place called the Center for Women and Enterprise that helps women start their own businesses.  Her company gave community hours to them for $25/hour enabling me to see her or one of her colleagues foregoing the $350 to $500/hr rate.  I could pay $25 once or twice, so I called them.  Thank you, Center for Women and Enterprise!

It turned out that they had other services too.  One was a person who could review business plans.  They would be glad to set me up with a man whose name was Hank Greenburgh.  He was a rich 86 year old Jewish man, still sharp as a tack, who had started and owned multiple successful businesses in his earlier days, most notably a furniture store.  He also had been in the military. Something I too was doing. At the time, I was an intelligence officer, a captain in the Air Force reserves.  Hank was retired and would come to the center, always in a suit, to help people like me.    

So, like Hank, I dressed up too, rode a Hubway bike downtown and brought him my business plan.  He ripped it to pieces.  ‘This is terrible,’ he said.  ‘Too fluffy, too sentimental.’  People don’t want to invest in a place to meet. They want to invest in something that makes money.  He drew all over it.  Told me to rewrite it and come back in a month.  So I did.  Again and again.  Each month he helped me make more improvements and as he did, we talked about his kids, his furniture store, his time in service.  And as we did, I felt joy because the coffee shop was already fulfilling its purpose and we hadn’t even opened.  Finally, about six months later, we finished a meeting and he said there was nothing left to change. He told me that I should take it to a lender.  

I had to think about that. We had $30,000 to our name, maybe $35,000.  Was I supposed to give up the back-seat dream of owning a home and instead invest it all in the front-seat dream of a small business in the Fenway? Maybe I’d lose it all. Maybe I would destroy my sweet growing family.  More prayer.  We asked my husband’s parents what they thought. They sent me to New Hampshire to meet with one of their friends from years ago when they were all at Dartmouth together- a kind, hard-working, astute man who was also very wealthy and successful in starting, running, and growing a business.  I set up an appointment, drove to NH and brought him my business plan, well mine and Hank’s really.  

He loved it. I remember specifically he said, “not only do I think it will make money, I think you can do it.”  Turned out he was also willing to give me $20,000 of coffee equipment he had sitting in a warehouse from someone he had tried to help finance who went under.  

“You can just have it,” he said.  ‘If someone else has a dream someday and you have $6,000 sitting around to give to them, great.  That’s how much I bought it back for from the bank when the business went under.  But if you never pass it on, I’m giving it to you without strings if you want it.”  He then coached me through how to to finance a start-up and the importance of how to figure out a rough estimate of how much money you were making off every dollar. He gave me more than a couple crash courses in business start-ups in less than 90 minutes and sent me on my way.  


I drove home in awe.  My husband and I sat down and decided to go for it.   We decided it was time I asked a bank for a loan.  I remember driving to that meeting in my fancy plum colored shirt- the one I wore on Wheel of Fortune- but that’s another story. It was a maternity shirt, and I wasn’t pregnant, but I decided it was lucky and looked nice. I also decided to forgo the Hubway bike that day- and so while driving downtown to the meeting of a life shaping day, I passed a Paris Creperie Truck. I realized I had no idea how many crepes we expected to sell. So I swerved over, doubled parked downtown and sprinted to the driver asking him how many crepes he sold each day while the cars behind me laid on the horn.  I also vividly remember the awe and relief I felt when I fielded the Vice President’s question of how many crepes I thought we could sell.  I had picked the lender on the SBA bank list that gave away the least amount of money but still had a female VP because I thought it would be good to practice on someone before I pitched it to a more likely candidate.  And I thought as a female, she would be more willing to help me succeed the next time around.  How stunned I was when I got the phone call that they actually wanted to finance it!  They thought I could succeed and offered me the loan at a time when banks were extremely picky. This gave my mom a little more confidence. I told her it was pretty hard to dupe an actuary, but on the inside I wasn’t so sure.  

As they said yes, more things began to fall into place.  One of my good friends said she would help with the interior design.  I had to pay her of course, but it was a special, joyful and personal process from designing the bar to picking the wallpaper.  How many selfies have since been taken in front of that perfect toile? A family friend did our build-out.  I paid him too, but it was an honor to work with people who knew us.  Neighborhoods Coffee and Crepes was coming to a reality.  

And now we had the most important choices to make: who would run it? Me, this homeschooling mother of three? I couldn’t give it the time it would need without sinking my family or changing my priorities.  My husband encouraged me to find a team.  I knew who I wanted on that team.  My friend Charlotte. We’d known each other at least five years at that point.  She was trustworthy, fun, hard-working, kind, and exuded an enthusiasm for life that embodied what we wanted to give away to others. She was currently working in a cubicle. Would she be willing? I casually asked her one night: if I really opened my shop, would she really run it? She thought. She prayed. She said yes and how she thrived outside of her cubicle.  

But what about our coffee? How could I possibly find the right roaster?  That’s a different narrative that I can tell you next week about the beauty of finding George Howell.  If you have never had a cup of our coffee, it really is amazing - a shameless but accurate plug in this piece. In short, I had found a local man who initiated a way to simultaneously lift the grower’s quality of bean and quality of life before fair trade was ever a buzzword.   He was glad to sell us his flavorful beans and train our baristas well.  

There is more to the story, I could give you details about our sweet immigration lawyer who missed a deadline, and Charlotte had to go back to Botswana.  Details about how she was still stuck there, unapproved, and we were just two weeks out from opening.  I could tell you how there were complicated issues with permits and government vacations, challenges with the bank and the builder. There’s a great story about the man with the thick accent and even thicker mustache who worked for the original Mr. Crepe marching in off the street the week we opened, forcefully telling me how to fold our crepes, coming behind the counter and taking the utensils from my hands.  Let’s just say that I listened carefully.  I could also tell you how in the early days,  I routinely had to pull all the money out of the downstairs till to make payroll.  But suffice it to say, we opened (with Charlotte present!) and only eighteen months in, we started to see a profit.  

We are built on a few things- they were true then and they’re still true now.

Exceptional Coffee

Surprisingly Delicious Crepes

Accessible Knowledge of the Coffee Experience

Integrity in Every Process

Meaningful Connections

These are the things our employees embody and pass on to other employees as they come through the ranks and share with our customers.  Each one could be its own blog post.  Maybe it will someday.  But for now, I’ll tell you that I love the reward of risk.  It reminds me of the night, after my husband proposed, and he walked me from the Fenway all the way to Somerville in the middle of a cold Boston February rain.  We held hands for the first time the whole way.  And it’s true that we still hold hands.  And that year I went abroad as a fifteen year old and endured language barriers and loneliness? By the end of my year in France, I was fluent and had extraordinary friends. The best stories are of risk rewarded and this story is only half written.  Come to Neighborhoods; drink lots of our exceptional fair trade coffee; eat many surprisingly delicious crepes, but be sure while you’re there, to tell me your story so it overlaps with mine and we write meaningful connections into both.  I’m always there on Monday morning.  See you soon.   

Making the Perfect Pour-Over

It's about time.  Have you ever sat down to draw and you lost track of time, or spent time gardening and found how soon afternoon turns to dusk? When we really pay attention to what's in front of us, not what's coming next or what we have to do tomorrow, time can rush past us in joy and time can slow down in savoring.  When you create something beautiful it takes time, and when you notice the creating, it feels beautiful.  A pour-over is like that. When we slow down to invest in the making of a pour-over, we pay attention to each second we have.  If food can be art, so can coffee. But you have to linger, slow down, and appreciate. 

What is a pour-over?

A pour-over is made by pouring hot water over coffee grounds in concentric circles. The process ensures the freshest cup of coffee possible at a personalized level.


Why a pour-over?

Making a pour-over requires more time and technique than the average coffee pot. However, there are many benefits. A pour-over dripper is much cheaper than coffee machines. They allow you to personalize your cup of coffee because you can fine tune the amount of water, grams of beans, and grind of the beans. Slowing down the process turns coffee from a caffeine addiction into an art form.

How do I make it?

You’ll need:

The trick is correctly balancing the timing, amount of water poured, and motion of the pour.

1.     Heat water to 205 degrees F in the water kettle.

2.     Place filter in the pour-over dripper, then gently wet the filter, using the kettle to seal the filter to the sides of the dripper.

3.     Weigh out 25 g of coffee, grind, and place grounds in the filter. Place the scale underneath the dripper, and zero it out.

4.     First pour: start at 0 seconds, pouring in clockwise circles to 50g. This stage is known as "blooming," and it is meant to help saturate the beans before extracting any of the flavor and caffeine. This helps mellow out harsher flavors and degas the beans of excess nitrogen.

5.     Second pour: starts at 30 seconds; pour to 160g. Begin pouring, slowly and steadily making sure all of the grounds are covered in water. Pour for about 30 seconds, then wait another 30 seconds.

6.     Third pour: starts at 1:30 seconds; pour to 260g. Pour into the center, trying not to agitate the grounds too much, again pouring slowly and steadily. Pour for 30 seconds, then wait another 30 seconds.

7.     Fourth pour: starts at 2:30 seconds; pour to 400g. Once again, pour slowly and steadily into the center. The pouring should stop at 3 minutes, and the water should drain completely at around 4 minutes. 



Customer Profile: Maggie Dobbins

Meet Maggie Dobbins. A graduate from Emmanuel who is currently getting her masters in social work at Boston University, she can often be found studying at Neighborhoods on Saturday afternoons with an iced London Fog with almond milk in hand. Maggie’s bubbly personality and positive outlook explains her immense passion for social work and social justice – something we discovered the moment we sat down with her. Here’s a little about Maggie!

“I’m from Duxbury, [which is] near the Cape. I have a twin brother. It’s just me and him and my parents and we’re all really close because there’s so few of us.”

“I’m graduating in May, and in my [social work] program, we end with an ethics class, and a lot of it is talking about our values and how our values often times shape our social work. I’m super into social justice and all the things that are intertwined in that. [I believe in] equity in terms of everyone getting what they need to really succeed and everyone starting off on equal footings, which our society doesn’t really have. [I really value] equity and social justice in terms of race and gender and sexual identity and all of those different things that people are so often discriminated against for historically and systemically.”

“I think a lot of [social justice] really stems down to economics…. In our society, all the power is determined by money…so breaking that down and re-allocating resources is something to focus on. I think if I were to pick something, it would be economic justice because everything is related to that.”

“Our programs require two internships. Your first one is two days and week, and your second one is three days a week. I was at a preschool last year, and I did support group therapy with parents there, groups with the children, and individual therapy with the children. [It] was really cool to get to know all of the different complexities that go along with families. It was really cool to work in collaboration with them, which I think is one of the things I love about social work."

“Now I work with college students, [which are] a different age group completely. And that’s really cool to be all of the different things that they … so I do education groups [and teach] about alcohol and drugs, and they just have so much to share. It’s so cool to get to work with them in terms of what they already know and go off of that."

“I really love Pure Barre. That’s my new favorite things. It’s a workout that’s like Pilates and bar combined. It starts with this really intense warm up where you do [a] 90 second plank and push-ups and all these things. Then you do some leg work at the bar, and then you do more abs. I love it because I couldn’t do a plank when I first started. I couldn’t do a push-up. It’s not so much what your body looks like, but you’re amazed that you can do those things. [Now] I can do a push up; I can hold a plank for 90 seconds. That’s crazy! It’s so cool to feel empowered in that way, especially because so much of working out is about what you look like and trying to look a certain way and fitting into a certain definition of beauty that society gives us. [At Pure Barre] you just do better than you did yesterday and push yourself to be the best you can be…. It’s really about your own experience with yourself and being proud of how far you’ve come.”

 -Maggie Dobbins

Customer Profile: Nick Brisbois

This week we got to know Nick Brisbois. Born in Honduras and raised in Western Massachusetts, Nick is a third-year student at Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and a regular at Neighborhoods. He is most often seen with a large, black iced coffee in hand and his notes before him. While his outwardly resume is impressive, his hobbies and small loves really make up his driven and quirky attitude. We’ve highlighted just a few snapshots of Nick and his life, from why he comes to Neighborhoods to what motivates him daily.

“I moved to Fenway back in the Fall of 2015. I had my first apartment on Park Drive, and I was walking around the neighborhood and never saw this block of restaurants before. I went here a couple times, but I didn’t start coming here [frequently] until I moved a block over on Peterborough. Since this was down the street and the food is delicious and the coffee is great, I just come here every morning. I think it’s the friendships [that keep me coming back to Neighborhoods]. I feel like I don’t meet a lot of people that are genuine, so…when I come here it’s a little community. It’s always a good time coming here in the morning and relaxing.”

“I’m in pharmacy…[and] I work at CVS as an intern. I decided to do it back in high school. My dad had heart surgery, and he cardiac arrested a few years ago. Brigham and Women’s hospital helped him. They put him on a lot of medication, [and] it was amazing how they balanced all of the mediation…. If it wasn’t for the medication, the pharmacists and the doctors, he wouldn’t be here today. I think ever since then I wanted to be a pharmacist.”

“I don’t want to do just pharmacy itself; I want to do more. I don’t want to lose track of the fun stuff. I’ve always had a knack for filmmaking, photography and music. I don’t want to lose my passion because a lot of people go to work, and they’re tired and drained. I want to keep the passion in all of the creative stuff.”

“I like creating things. I think I judge a movie by what I feel after. I think with anything if it’s different, if it’s original, if it just makes me feel something and for a moment I lose myself in the movie…I think that’s good. A lot of things lately are a copy of a copy, so I try and lean towards the more obscure things. I like a lot of things people wouldn’t like….things that stand out. Things that you’ve never heard before, or if they have inspiration from something else, they do it better. Just anything different.”

“My motivation is to be the best at everything I do. I think there’s such a limited time we have that I do not want to squander any time…. If I’m gonna do something, I’m gonna do it with everything I have…. I think there are many benefits in self-improvement. Lately I’ve been going to the gym every day. I’ve been meditating for four years. I’m trying to get into yoga too. I just think taking care of yourself [is important].”

-Nick Brisbois



Customer Profile: Sal Zarzana

Neighborhoods Cafe is starting a new project! Each month, a different customer and vendor will be highlighted in our blog Our Customers, Our Community. Through these posts, we hope to dig deeper into our community at Fenway and the Boston area and learn more about the people we spend our time with. From the regulars whose orders we know by heart to the dedicated vendors who supply the freshest foods every week, each person has a place at Neighborhoods. Grab a cup of coffee and learn about our community with us.

This week we sat down with Sal Zarzana, a customer who almost always has an iced Beestinger in hand and a beanie on his head. A student at Emmanuel studying Psychology, Sal frequently makes a pit stop at Neighborhoods before heading to classes or while out for a walk. He first came to Neighborhoods his freshman year of college, stopping by on occasion, and over the years it has become a staple in his life. Here is just a little bit of Sal and his story.

“The atmosphere [of Neighborhoods] is the first thing that comes to mind. It’s just so warm and bright and friendly. It’s very nice and it’s almost destressing in a sense because…it’s not as anxiety-ridden. [A] really enjoyable thing is being able to calm down, take a moment, have my shoulders relax and deeply breathe and take it all in without feeling rushed or uncomfortable. That’s why I come to Neighborhoods. I definitely get that here.”

“I would say one thing that has shaped me…is the idea of independence and what that actually means. I think that for the majority of my time here at Emmanuel and in Boston I didn’t really have to confront that outright because I always had friends around me, and I was always doing something. I wasn’t necessarily alone, even though [I] was lonely. But then this year all my friends are busy, we all have different schedules, and I literally was alone for 24 hours of the day. And so I was like, ‘Oh, I have to spend some time by myself.’ At first it’s a struggle, but I think I’ve gotten so used to being independent that I’ve embraced it; the good and the bad.”

“A hobby that I do for fun is go for walks a lot. I also like to run. I like to be out in the city, out in the sunlight embracing the day and the peace and quiet, escaping from myself while also being outside and in the world. Neighborhoods is a pit stop for me, and it puts me in the right state of mind to get where I need to be while I decompress after my run.”

“The…other thing about me that I really value and has a lot of worth is being non-judgmental, open-minded and true to myself and my values. Obviously anyone can say that, but I will never compromise who I am in order to fit some prescribed role. More so now than ever I’ve become very rebellious, but only in the best way I think. I think that really drives me to be my authentic self.”

“I didn’t always think the way I do or feel so confident in myself, so definitely now to have that is so empowering. [I am] unapologetic about the things that I like and the things that I do. It’s not really social acceptable to jam out while listening to music. You’re supposed to just sit there stoically and stare, and I am just not going to do it. I am going to jam out and be awkward, and if it makes you uncomfortable, you know what, don’t look!”

-Sal Zarzana