As the city of Denver continues to grow and every bit of real estate seems to be reserved for more apartment buildings or breweries, an old space in the Sunnyside neighborhood has become home to one of the more innovative concepts around town: a specialty coffee shop operated by local middle- and high-school students.
Pinwheel Coffee is a cafe that employs Compass and Denver Montessori School students, along with a team of full-time baristas. In partnership with the Montessori junior high and high schools, along with help from Colorado-based nonprofit organization Great Work Inc., students learn the ropes of specialty coffee while also gaining experience in customer service and human interaction, small-business operations, money-handling and accounting, and exposure to one of Denver’s most popular industries.
For more than a century, Montessori schools have prioritized real-world experience and freedom of choice over more traditional middle- and high-school environments. Coupled with Denver’s natural inclination toward appreciating craft beverages, coffee is a natural, easy fit.
Pinwheel holds the potential to be an alternative entry to the specialty coffee world for its student employees. Rather than finding coffee after other careers, Montessori students are learning at a young enough age to either participate in the “coffee lifers”’ school of thought, or use it as a safety net between schooling and finding a place in another preferred job field.
The Pinwheel Coffee bar consists of a Synesso MVP espresso machine, a pour-over setup, Mahlkönig PEAK and Mazzer espresso grinders, and local Upstart Kombucha on tap. The setup is efficient, tasteful and easy to work with, offering students and baristas an opportunity to learn how to consistently make good cups of coffee.
Along with learning school subjects in the form of hands-on training, the Montessori students are learning specialty coffee from Middle State Coffee, one of Denver’s most prominent roasters, and even getting a look at the roasting side in the process.
“I had a round of students in the roastery one day and we actually got them all on the sample roaster,” says Middle State owner Jay DeRose. “We did a spiel like, ‘This is coffee, this is why good coffee is good coffee,’ we did a little bit of education stuff, and then we fired up the sample roaster and each of them got to roast a batch and take it home.”
For high school junior Eli Chung, working at Pinwheel is an opportunity to set himself up for success for college and beyond. His job training can translate to a career in coffee if he chooses, but he can also pursue whatever his dream profession may be while earning a living in a respected, engaging field.
“In my middle school years, we had something called ‘Occupations,’ which was kind of the same idea as Pinwheel, but in a middle-school environment,’ says Chung. “There was a wood shop and a culinary program, and you would choose a new one each semester. There was a coffee shop and I’d taken that for about a year, so this feels like sort of a prolonged out-of-school extension of that experience. It was small-scale, student-run, student client-based, and everything was inside of the school. This feels like more of a larger community reach, but with a similar experience.”
Like any other barista, Chung can dial in espresso, steam milk, inform customers which coffees are available on any given day, and work the shifts his schedule allows. His authentic experience as an employee at a coffee shop has been positive, and could even potentially lead to a continued role in the coffee industry.
“I don’t want to limit myself to not working in coffee [career-wise],” he says. “I like it, and I think the experience will prove to be beneficial down the line, especially when I’m looking for positions during college. I’ll have this experience under my belt when I’m applying for part-time jobs, whatever they may be.”
Instead of working at a convenience store or a local supermarket, Montessori students’ involvement with Pinwheel could be a blueprint for the next wave of coffee professionals. Working at a local coffee shop in college has been fashionable for as long as coffee shops and campuses have been around, but preparing junior high and high schoolers for the professional coffee workplace can prepare students to pursue something else, too.
With college debt stacking up like a pile of tips, coffee could be an incubator that provides more young adults with the essentials: decent pay and job stability, interesting work, and a good cup of coffee each morning.
It’s also a twist on workplace dynamics and a potential teaching space for experienced customer service professionals. Instead of just relaying information about shop etiquette to the new hire, experienced baristas have an opportunity to be involved in formative times for their coworkers.
“Throwing a bunch of students into a restaurant environment would be so saturating that there wouldn’t be room for absorption,” says barista Colleen Reardon. “It’s so fast-paced and there’s so much information. But coffee shops are the perfect atmosphere for learning because you usually have some dry spaces where you don’t have a lot going on, and you can take time to explain what’s going and the students can actually learn.”
Reardon, a veteran of Denver’s coffee scene, feels that Pinwheel is special because of the people involved from top to bottom, and because the students have been receptive to any learning experience that pops up along the way.
It’s an unusual cafe concept and it involves everyone buying into the approach to learning that is being taught. It’s pure Montessori.
Ben Wiese is a freelance journalist based in Denver. Read more Ben Wiese on Sprudge.