Purple Door Coffee in Denver has officially added a roastery. Like the namesake cafe in its fourth year of operation, the Purple Door roastery will employ people experiencing homelessness in an effort to empower them to reclaim their lives through supportive and meaningful employment in the specialty coffee industry.
Director of Organizational Direction Mark Smesrud acts as the non-profit’s head roaster and trainer for all things coffee, and is also the one connecting coffee to Purple Door’s greater mission in hopes that the organization’s model can incite sustainable change.
Of Purple Door’s 18 employees over the past four years, 17 have successfully exited homelessness. But despite this high rate, adapting to the life of a busy barista has left some staff members struggling. With that in mind, the intended roles for the roastery were clear—to roast quality coffee while creating work opportunities that are flexible in ways those available in a coffee shop cannot be.
“Overall, the roastery is just a better environment for our employees that are coming fresh off the streets to be able to get their feet wet with working, get used to working, and have a feeling of success in the workplace,” Smesrud says. “At the coffee shop, it’s kind of like we throw them in the deep end and they just figure it out. Because the shop’s been up and running for four years, some days it gets really busy. [At the roastery] it’s just a nice pace. It’s a good place for people to settle in.”
Filling the 3,300-square-foot space are various brewing tools, a bag sealer, cupping equipment, grinders, and a brand new black and gold San Franciscan Roaster Company roaster. There are also plans to add a kitchen for baking pastries and sandwiches for the cafe.
With the ability to offer job training in and outside coffee, the expansion of Purple Door has the potential to help more people than ever permanently exit homelessness. While time management, learning routes to work, and adjusting to a full-time occupation might be skills taken for granted by many, Purple Door now has the luxury of teaching them, potentially for the first time in a person’s life, rather than simply hoping they are learned before a 6am opening shift.
“The roastery creates a little more flexibility with who we can hire,” Smesrud says. “So, maybe they’re staying in a shelter, and since the shifts start later, they can go to a place to make sure they get showered and cleaned, they’re good to work in a food production facility. It also creates more flexibility with [time management] and the ability to say, ‘Hey, you were 15 minutes late. I’m going to need you to stay 15 minutes longer so that we can get everything done.’ That’s not really an option in a retail setting. If they’re 15 minutes late, we’re still open—we have to serve the customers waiting.”
A production assistant role has been added to the year-long program employees enter upon hire, with curriculum covering emotional and physical wellness, financial management, and educational advancement opportunities. There are also plans to offer warehouse operations and Occupational Safety and Health Administration certifications, kitchen and bakery training, office management training, and even a partnership with a temp agency.
Smesrud admits the one-year program is still a flawed system. Not everyone coming through the program wishes to stay in coffee, or even could. Still, coffee is not the end game.
“Up to this point, our employees have felt like they’ve only been successful in a coffee shop setting in their entire lives,” Smesrud says. “From their perspective, they feel like they can only do coffee. We want to teach a lot of different skills so that eventually they’ll feel comfortable going into a whole array of different jobs. That’s the goal, to make sure they’re trained in a field they feel comfortable in and actually good at.”
The ability to hire more people that are even further away from stability will be a large indicator of success for Purple Door. After all, saying “yes” to someone experiencing homelessness and needing a job is why it’s here in the first place.
“This ability to scale up and create more jobs is huge for us,” Smesrud says. “We’re just excited to up those numbers. At the roastery, we’re able to meet real needs and do more in regard to mental health, really amp up our curriculum side of things, and diversify the training.”
In its history, only about six or seven Purple Door employees have been able to stay in retail long-term.
“So,” Smesrud says, “the fact that we can diversify the way we train—I think we will be able to increase our success rate and increase the number of folks we’re able to serve.”
Ben Wiese is a freelance journalist based in Denver. Read more Ben Wiese on Sprudge.