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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

In Other Words: The Coffee Bus Builds Community One Cup at a Time

Justin Smalley loading up the "bus."

Christine and Justin Smalley’s family mission is to “build community.” That was their mission well before they bought Fort Thomas Coffee from the Valentines. But now they have the opportunity to expand their mission to a larger community. And remarkable things are happening. 

But then there are stories that have lots of “but then” moments - and this is one of them. 

Recently, the Smalleys began the Coffee Bus program for the city’s schools. It’s simple how it works. Teachers at a particular school call in their orders, the baristas make them, and they are delivered to the school. But then there is more to the story than a simple delivery.

Christine Smalley says that “As a community coffee shop tucked away in the middle of town it would be a challenge to grow the business…. I recognized that there are a couple of hours in the day that are very slow and started thinking what can we do in those hours. And we thought, well, we have 7 schools in the area so what if we could serve the schools? Teachers get a lot of FTC gift cards but they rarely have time to use them.” 

Christine Smalley

So the Coffee Bus idea was born in order to deliver coffee to the teachers in the schools in a fun and creative way. “As a community coffee shop we know the school schedules, the school rhythms, we know the teachers and this is a way to serve them,” she says. 

Justin Smalley is quite handy in the wood shop and he built Christine’s dream. Then they asked Colin Shadwell, the middle school art teacher, to paint it like a bus. And the delivery vehicle was complete. 

But then, Christine says, “We got an intern from Highlands, Savannah King.… This was the perfect opportunity for her to learn all aspects of the business. She really helped the project get legs. And here we are.” 

The high school's Coffee Crew: Jacob Schickler, Alaina Oetjen, Sage Rosen,
Kaitlyn Gonzalez, Mateo Gutierrez, Abby Sandlin  

But then, Christine knew that the Special Needs department at the high school ran the Bluebird coffee bar and she didn’t want to interfere in that project so she called teacher Shelly Hoffstedder at the high school who readily embraced the real world experience for her students. COVID had restricted students from getting out in to the community for training so this was the perfect opportunity for them to form a partnership. The students would grow their business experience and the coffeeshop would continue to serve the community. So now those students are a vital part of making the Coffee Bus happen at the high school. But even more importantly, the community benefits from the connections made. Everyone wins. 

But then, Christine smiles and adds, ”Savannah will implement something new to the coffee bus - an affirmation of encouragement. Savannah put together a list of words that describe what teachers actually do beyond academics. And so our coffee crew, the Bluebird Coffee Crew, will write the word of the week to remind them” that students and community see what teachers do beyond the classroom and recognize that. “It’s an opportunity to build love and encouragement.” 

Students prepare drinks for delivery.

What do the students think about the project? Christine says, “They love that employees get free drinks so they get to walk back to school with a drink in hand and that’s fun for them.” She adds that “We are learning” with the students. She says that, “We want them to have meaningful work and to add meaning to the process so after they add the word of the week …then I get to teach them some behind-the-scenes stuff. I showed them the reports and payroll and how a business all works together.”

It’s wonderfully encouraging that the Smalleys take so much time to share their experiences with the students. But then, no one should be surprised because that is, after all, their mission - to build community.

Fort Thomas Coffee now has two buses that can deliver a total of 24 drinks at a time but they are delivering much more than a flavorful drink. They are building a community that relies upon each other to share experiences and to work towards a common goal. This project that started out as as simple way to deliver coffee has grown to be much more. It is an act of affirmation and love for the community.  

A true community will help each other.  But then, a true community is only as good as the people who contribute to it. But then the word’s Latin roots mean “shared by all or many.” By that standard this community is strong. 

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