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Coffee shop’s eye-opening idea

Community: Real Life Church’s Undergrounds lets visitors ‘pay what you feel’

Posted: August 8, 2010 10:37 p.m.
Updated: August 9, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Undergrounds coffee shop volunteer manager Kelly Boek prepares French pressed coffee on Tuesday afternoon in Valencia. The shop in Real Life Church uses a pay-what-you-feel-it’s-worth business model.

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Bleary-eyed customers trickled into the Undergrounds coffee shop in Valencia on a recent afternoon as Margaret McDonald hustled behind the counter to fill cups with the dark, aromatic beverage.

When it came time to pay, McDonald peered over the cash register and, instead of reciting a total, offered: “Pay what you feel like it’s worth. It is donation-only — it’s free, if you want.”

The Real Life Church runs the coffee shop, which is typical in every other way, to attract people to spend time at the church on days other than its usual day of worship, and to create a friendly community. All of its proceeds go to charity.

“A lot of people would never step foot in a church, but they will go to a coffee shop,” said creative arts director Paul Dowler.

“Our feeling,” Dowler said, “was church shouldn’t be a place that is alive on Sunday, dark like a theater district the other six days a week.”

Dowler estimated about three-quarters of the people who walk into Undergrounds to buy a cup of drip coffee attend Real Life Church. The menu does not yet include espresso-based drinks or fancier icy concoctions, though it will in the future, Dowler said.

At Undergrounds on a recent afternoon, a few people sipped their coffee on leather couches, engrossed in books or conversations. Others typed away on their computers at the high tables scattered through the middle of the room.

Photographs of children from the church’s missionary projects in Uganda and the Dominican Republic were artfully hung around the room. The coffee was served in ceramic mugs that read: “Drink coffee. Do good.”

What it’s worth
The idea behind the pay-what-you-feel-it’s-worth business model was the feeling that people are worth more than a fixed price, Dowler said. He said they wanted to remove the commerce aspect of coming to a coffee shop. Church leaders looked at three other church-run coffee houses with similar models.

Each month, the church selects a different local nonprofit organization to contribute 10 percent of its proceeds to — July was SCV Young Life.

The rest of the revenue covers operating costs and the Church’s various missions, including G.O. Ministries in the Dominican Republic and The Children of the Nations in Uganda.

Undergrounds’ mission is “to create a comfortable place for coffee, community and culture.”

In an effort to not only make Undergrounds a place of community, but also of culture, the coffee house will be hosting local bands every Friday evening, and may eventually feature artists and photographers as well.

Brothers Jamin and Jordan Haro said they like to come to the coffee shop because it is a comfortable place to meet new people and get more acquainted with their church.

“I think it is awesome. It’s great. I want to be able to give more to keep this place going,” said Jamin, who meets with a book club at the coffee shop every Friday.

“The difference is community. It really allows people to come together, mingle and just talk to one another,” he said. “At a lot of other places, people don’t open up to strangers.”

Marcus Garret, 38, comes to the coffee shop in the afternoons because it has free Wi-Fi and is a nice place to bring his two young sons and get some work done.

“It’s quiet, it’s not crazy busy and it’s open,” the Saugus High School teacher said.

Undergrounds’ emphasis on community extends beyond the atmosphere it creates at the coffee shop. The coffee served is Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee, an Atlanta-based company that buys its beans directly from growers in Rwanda. The company pays a living wage, which is actually higher than Fair Trade, according to the company’s website.

“I feel good knowing the coffee I’m drinking is being used to support fairly traded coffee,” said Garret. “It’s a decent, sustainable thing.”

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