When you drive past Mount Airy High School along North South Street, you notice the walls, sidewalks and signage of a typical educational institution – but probably don’t realize that a thriving business is also within its borders.
During one recent morning at Blue Bear Cafe as the school year ended, Ocean Davis, a senior, was finishing off a fruit smoothie after serving cookies and brownies to an appreciative recipient earlier. Chances are, another customer will soon be ordering a freshly brewed cup of latte from the student-run operation.
The coffee at Blue Bear Cafe is said to be so good that teacher Ashley Pyles did not hesitate to compare what the children prepare with that offered by an international coffeehouse chain:
“They make the best coffee, hands down, over Starbucks any day,” Pyles said proudly.
Along with a variety of coffees – including frappes, lattes and Americanos – there are several flavors of fruit smoothies available, various sweet treats including bundt cakes, snacks, hot chocolate, cider and more.
The menu at Blue Bear Cafe also includes specialty drinks that seem to have become a local sensation, bubble tea.
Yet perhaps the best product served there is success – cooked daily by apron-wearing student entrepreneurs who gain valuable business experience during the school year that can help them in a career.
“It’s never about the coffee,” Workforce Initiatives coordinator Polly Long said when discussing the mission at hand, or for that matter the caffeine, the stimulating ingredient in that popular drink.
“It’s about the skills,” added Long, a longtime school system employee who is given a lot of credit for making the business on campus a reality.
“A student-run coffee shop has been a dream of Polly Long’s for years,” said a statement compiled with the Blue Bear Cafe program that received special recognition from city government at a recent council meeting. This statement also refers to the role that “students with extraordinary talents” played in its success.
The cafe, which originated in 2019, aims to provide targeted youth with training in essential entry-level skills and create a path to employment in the service industry.
Junior Jennifer Griffin, for example, has her sights set on becoming a pastry chef.
Blue Bear Cafe operates through the Vocational Course Unit at the school and is overseen by teachers Jennifer Gentry and Ashley Pyles in addition to Long.
“Jennifer is kind of our pastry chef,” Gentry said of Griffin’s role in the operation.
Approximately 10 students are enrolled in the program during a given academic year. They also take regular courses in addition to working a set number of hours for the cafe, which make up class periods. It is open from 8am to 4pm when school is in session.
Blue Bear Cafe occupies a strategic space in the high school’s media center, providing an inviting environment to enjoy a drink or snack that can probably rival that of any coffee house on the planet. The environment is pleasantly lit by large windows overlooking North-South Street.
The venue was organized with the help of Goodwill Industries, Long said, which helped provide start-up funds to acquire new furniture and accessories.
It is tastefully decorated by walls painted in a soft brown and olive green color scheme, emblazoned with phrases such as “serve kindness one cup at a time” and inspirational words including “imagine”, “create”, “inspire” and others.
Students respond by constantly adding new drinks and have even developed a website to promote the business. A Blue Bear Cafe Facebook page is available to assist with ordering.
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 a dual, harmonious existence between the two facilities. A gift shop specializing in student-made products is also located at the cafe and offers items including mugs and T-shirts and handmade items from local entrepreneurs.
Along with the culinary talents honed by the youth, other abilities are learned that they can apply to many additional career endeavors besides a coffee shop itself.
These include leadership, communication, organizational skills and teamwork, plus the actual functions of dealing with the public in taking orders, making change from a cash register and processing credit card orders.
“They see it in real time,” Long said of the impression left on those from the outside world who can see education applied to a real business. The students involved are a mix of upperclassmen and lowerclassmen who ensure a seamless transition with the transfer of knowledge as they come and go.
“They’re basically learning how to run a business on their own,” Pyles noted.
While the cafe is closed for the summer before resuming operations at the start of the next school year, it has been popular with members of the public who can call in and pick up orders on campus.
In other cases, large orders will even be delivered to customers.
“We’re in the black,” Long said of the costs associated with that service given the rise in gas prices. “What we’re trying to do is break even,” with any profit going straight back into the business.
“We use some of that money to take them (students) on field trips,” Gentry advised.
Long hopes to expand Blue Bear Cafe to a downtown location if one can be found under the right circumstances.
The smell of Blue Bear Cafe’s success wafted into City Hall a few miles away, as evidenced by the special recognition it received at a recent meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
Pyles attended that session with two students, Griffin and fellow junior Shatavia Robison, who were there for a presentation about the program highlighted by the girls handing out chocolate chip cookies to those in attendance.
The cookies were contained in colorful packaging with labels extolling sentiments such as “be nice” and “choose happiness.”
“This program is all about our kids first and foremost,” Pyles said of the effort that “just blew my mind.”
“The Blue Bear Cafe is one of the bright shining lights of the Mount Airy school system,” noted Commissioner Jon Cawley, thanking Polly Long for her involvement.
“I know you will go far in life,” Commissioner Marie Wood told the students.
“Good job, ladies,” said Joe Zalescik of the board.
“This is what a community like Mount Airy is and can be,” Mayor Ron Niland said of the cafe’s success.