When passing by Mount Airy High School along North South Street, one notices the walls, sidewalks and signage of a typical educational institution — but probably don’t realize that a thriving business is also within its confines.
During one recent morning at Blue Bear Cafe as the school year wound down, Ocean Davis, a senior, was putting the finishing touches on a fruit smoothie after earlier serving up cookies and brownies to an appreciative recipient. Chances are, another customer soon would be ordering a fresh-brewed cup of latte from the student-run operation.
The coffee at Blue Bear Cafe is reputed to be so tasty that teacher Ashley Pyles did not shy away from comparing what the kids prepare to that offered by a international coffeehouse chain:
“They make the best coffee, hands-down, over Starbucks any day,” Pyles said proudly.
Along with a variety of coffees — including frappe, latte and Americano — there are several flavors of fruit smoothies available, various sweet treats including bundt cakes, snack items, hot chocolate, cider and more.
The menu at Blue Bear Cafe further includes specialty drinks featuring what apparently has become a local sensation, bubble teas.
Yet perhaps the best product served up there is success — cooked up daily by apron-wearing student entrepreneurs who are gaining valuable business experience during the school year which can aid them in a career.
“It’s never about the coffee,” Workforce Initiatives Coordinator Polly Long said when discussing the mission involved, or for that matter the caffeine, the stimulative ingredient of that popular beverage.
“It’s about the skills,” added Long, a longtime school system employee who is being given much credit for making the on-campus business a reality.
“A student-operated coffee shop has been a dream of Polly Long’s for years,” says a statement prepared in conjunction with the Blue Bear Cafe program receiving special city government recognition during a recent council meeting. That statement also references the role “students with extraordinary talents” have played in its success.
The cafe, which emerged in 2019, seeks to provide targeted youth with training in essential entry-level skills and create a pathway to employment in the service industry.
For example, junior Jennifer Griffin has her sights set on becoming a pastry chef.
Blue Bear Cafe operates through the Occupational Course of Study unit at the school and is overseen by teachers Jennifer Gentry and Ashley Pyles in addition to Long.
“Jennifer is sort of our pastry chef,” Gentry said of Griffin’s go-to role in the operation.
About 10 students are enrolled in the program during a given academic year. They also take regular courses in addition to working a specified number of hours for the cafe, constituting class periods. It is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. when school is in session.
Blue Bear Cafe occupies a strategic space in the high school’s media center, which provides an inviting setting to enjoy a beverage or snack arguably rivaling that of any coffeehouse on the planet. The surroundings are pleasantly lit by large windows facing North South Street.
The place was arranged with the assistance of Goodwill Industries, Long said, which helped supply start-up funds to acquire new furniture and accessories.
It is tastefully adorned by walls painted in a soft-brown and olive-green color scheme, imprinted with phrases such as “serving kindness one cup of the time” and inspiring words including “imagine,” “create,” “inspire” and others.
Students respond by constantly adding new drinks and even developed a website to promote the business. A Blue Bear Cafe Facebook page is available to assist with orders.
The facility’s spic-and-span kitchen is located in a side room, near a counter area where students check out library materials as part of dual, harmonious existence between the two facilities. A gift shop specializing in student-made products also is located at the cafe offering items including mugs and T-shirts and handcrafted items from local entrepreneurs.
Along with the culinary talents honed by the youths, other abilities are learned that they can apply to many additional career endeavors besides a coffee shop itself.
These include leadership, communication, organization skills and teamwork, plus the real-life functions of dealing the public in taking orders, making change from a cash register and processing credit card orders.
“They’re seeing it in real time,” Long said of the impression left on those from the outside world who are able to witness education being applied to an actual enterprise. The students involved are a mixture of upperclassmen and lowerclassmen who ensure a seamless transition with the transfer of knowledge as they come and go.
“They are basically learning how to run a business on their own,” Pyles observed.
While the cafe is shut down for the summer, before resuming operations again with the start of the next school year, it has been popular among members of the public who can call in and pick up orders on the campus.
In other cases, large orders will even be delivered to customers.
“We are in the black,” Long said of the cost related to that service given the surge in gas prices. “What we try to do is break even,” with any profits going right back into the business.
“We use some of that money to take them (students) on field trips,” Gentry advised.
Long is hoping to expand Blue Bear Cafe to a downtown location if one can be found under the right circumstances.
The smell of success from Blue Bear Cafe has emanated to City Hall a couple of miles away, as evidenced by the special recognition it received during a recent meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
Pyles attended that session along with two students, Griffin and fellow junior Shatavia Robison, who were there for a presentation on the program highlighted by the girls passing out chocolate chip cookies to those in attendance.
The cookies were contained in colorful packaging with labels extolling such sentiments as “be nice” and “choose happiness.”
“This program is first and foremost all about our kids,” Pyles said of the effort that “has just blown my mind.”
“The Blue Bear Cafe is one of the bright shining lights of the Mount Airy school system,” Commissioner Jon Cawley remarked, while thanking Polly Long for her involvement.
“I know y’all will go far in life,” Commissioner Marie Wood told the students.
“Great job, ladies,” said the board’s Joe Zalescik.
“This is what a community like Mount Airy is and can be,” Mayor Ron Niland said of the cafe’s success.