In some ways, Quaker City Coffee partners Bob Logue and Christian Dennis have lived parallel lives. Both men grew up in Frankford, developed keen eyes for supply and demand, and became entrepreneurs. For Logue, that meant becoming a partner in Federal Donuts and Bodhi Coffee, catering to the city’s foodie culture.
For Dennis, that meant selling drugs.
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Dennis says, simply, that he became the “wrong kind” of entrepreneur. He spent his childhood watching the male role models in his life—older cousins, neighborhood friends—selling drugs for money. By the time he was 18 years old, he had been arrested for selling drugs three times; in 2005 he went to prison, serving five years of a five to 10 year prison sentence.
When he got out of prison, Dennis, now 36, realized he needed to start over—and also how hard that was. He took whatever jobs he could get, mostly going from driving one moving truck to another, before enrolling in Community College of Philadelphia in 2015. He met Logue later that year, when his classmates asked him to speak about his experiences at an end-of-semester celebration. (Logue was there at the request of his wife, a CCP teacher, who asked him to bring donuts.)
“I heard him speak, and thought, the guy’s got poise, the guy’s got game,” says Logue, who is 54 years old. He introduced himself to Dennis, and Dennis, looking to make the most of the introduction, asked Logue for a job. “I remember saying to him, ‘It’s not what I can do for you, it’s what you can do for me’,” Logue says. “And I’d say that was the moment.”
A year and a half later, that moment turned into the official start of their joint venture, Quaker City Coffee, which works to specifically hire returned citizens, with the goal of preventing people like Dennis from getting caught up in the re-entry cycle. Logue and Dennis launched Quaker City Coffee in January, and so far, they’ve sold almost 10,000 pounds of coffee especially blended for them from local Philly roaster High Point. Establishing their brick-and-mortar presence was as simple as transforming one of Logue’s two Bodhi Coffee shops into the Quaker City Coffee shop.
“We’re hoping that we can create new economies in communities where there is no other economy to turn to,” Logue says. “It’s not gonna happen in a year. I’m not gonna go to 8th and Erie next year and feel like, ‘Wow, what a great place’. But give us a decade. Give us 15 years. See what happens.”
For Logue, the idea was a long time coming. Along with Zach Rogers (now Quaker City Coffee’s Vice President), Logue had been thinking about starting a new coffee company that addressed poverty and incarceration around the neighborhoods where he grew up.
“My thought has always been jobs, creating jobs,” he says. “If I want to create jobs, if I want to create a company, what do I want? I want talented people to work with me. So where are the most talented people in the neighborhood? Folks who are already entrepreneurs. It just so happens that they’re selling drugs.”
So far, Dennis and Logue have hired three formerly incarcerated people, or “returned citizens.” All three now work as baristas or help out with packaging, but Logue says each new reentry hire is apprenticed in the basics of the business from the start, and groomed for management, sales, or customer service. As the business grows, the current reentry team will transition out of barista jobs and move into roles on the corporate team.
The starting wage for Quaker City employees is $12.50 per hour; when an employee reaches one year with the company, that wage goes up to $15 per hour. Quaker City’s business model also includes profit sharing for all employees, though thataspect will only kick in once the company starts to turn a profit, in late 2018 or early 2019. Quaker City also donates $1 for every bag of coffee sold to Redemption Housing, a faith-based organization that provides programming and support to returned citizens.
Beyond the jobs, the partners hope their coffee shop can be a place to bridge the gaps between Philly neighborhoods, or at least make people aware of the experiences of the other Philadelphia. “When you get to the heart of it, that’s what it’s about,” Dennis says. “Helping people, being a good person, changing the world, and changing the way, when I walk down the street, when you see me, you don’t feel any type of way, because you just see a man.”
While Logue and Dennis are visibly in sync now, often finishing each other’s sentences, it took Dennis a while to build trust in both Logue and his idea. “I’m gonna be honest, people say stuff all the time, especially to guys like me, like, ‘Oh I’m gonna help you, I’m gonna do this,’” Dennis says. “Coming from where I come from, there was a skepticism, like what does he really want?”
Eventually, Logue’s dedication proved to Dennis that his motivations were genuine. “I’ve never seen a person more passionate about changing things,” he says. “He doesn’t have to do half the things he does. He doesn’t have to do this.”
That’s undoubtedly true. Since opening its first location in Pennsport in 2011, Federal Donuts has since expanded to five locations across Philadelphia, as well as one in Miami, Florida. But for as long as Logue has been a part of the successful, growing food world of Philadelphia, he has always known that his is a much different world than much of the city.
“I’ve been fortunate to be running around in the middle of that for a long time,” he says. “But two blocks over there, just beyond, is destitute poverty. Destitute. We’re talking families living in fear, kids accidentally getting shot on the streets. For as much as Philadelphia is integrated, there are still barriers.”
In Dennis’s neighborhood, for example, there was no economic renaissance, only the drug economy. And once you dip one foot into that economy, it can be difficult to get out.
“Imagine living at 8th and Erie and every time you come downtown to see your parole officer, you see all these buildings going up, you see all this construction,” Dennis says. “Everything looks new and beautiful. But you go home and it’s nothing. You can’t get a job, and you’ve got a baby mom. I deal with this. I watch guys go through this. I was that guy going through this.”
“Two blocks over there, just beyond, is destitute poverty,” Logue says. “Destitute. We’re talking families living in fear, kids accidentally getting shot on the streets. For as much as Philadelphia is integrated, there are still barriers.”
Dennis was in 7th grade the first time he was arrested. He had half a pound of oregano in his locker. He’d been selling it to other kids, passing it off (successfully) for marijuana. After his subsequent arrests, he tried to make a fresh start. But with each fresh start came more bills, more mouths to feed, and fewer options for how to feed them.
As a father to six children now, Dennis is determined to give the next generation a better, safer life than he had. “I’m tired of violence in my city,” he says. “I’m tired of being scared for my kids. For some of the problems, I think I helped create them, by doing some of the things that I’ve done in my life.”
To grow their business, Dennis and Logue are focusing on selling their coffee in single-cup packaging to other businesses, using both their coffee and their philanthropic mission as selling points. Already, they’ve contracted with Project Home’s 12 Philadelphia offices. (They said they are also close to securing another major account, but wouldn’t name it yet.)
“I think that’s where we’re going to find job creation,” Logue says. “Because that is sales and account management, and product distribution on a much larger scale.”
Dennis is still going to Community College part-time, and spending every free moment with Logue at Quaker City, or with his own family. But these days, the lines between work and family are a little blurry. “He’s like the big brother I never had,” Dennis says of Logue. “I haven’t had many genuine older men in my life that I look up to. I watch how he is with his family, with his wife, his kids. I just watch how he hustles.”
While Quaker City’s first year has been mostly a hustle, Dennis still has his eyes on a grand payoff for him and Logue. “I want it to work not only for me, but for him,” Dennis says. “I just want there to be that moment where we’re on the beach, drinking our coffee, on a laptop placing orders. Like, ‘yeah, we’re here.’”
While Logue has stakes in already successful businesses, he says working at Quaker City is the first time in his life he’s felt like he’s been able to use his education and his experiences to give back—a sweet spot he’d been seeking for years. Like Dennis, Logue has one eye trained on the work right in front of him, and the other on what the fulfillment of Quaker City’s mission might look like in the future.
“We’re hoping that we can change the conversation, and that we can create new economies in communities where there is no other economy to turn to,” he says. “It’s not gonna happen in a year. I’m not gonna go to 8th and Erie next year and feel like, ‘Wow, what a great place’. But give us a decade. Give us 15 years. See what happens.”
For both partners, the idea of spreading economic prosperity to impoverished neighborhoods couldn’t be simpler.
“If people really wanna see change, they really wanna see this community be the city of brotherly love, then support some good brothers,” Dennis says. “Buy our coffee, let us hire some people, and start trying to change the way we look at each other.”Header Photo: Lamont Wilson