ReConnect Café is Changing Lives, One Cup At A Time

Bed-Stuy’s new café is about much more than coffee.

Photographs: Vicky Wasik

At ReConnect Café on Tompkins Street, just around the block from the Marcy Projects, you can buy a Bed-Stuy cookie for 50 cents. An unassuming lump with a crumbly exterior, the cookie is a take on oatmeal – chocolate chip with caramel thrown in, coated in graham cracker crumbs.

“It’s our signature cookie,” says Father Jim O’Shea, ReConnect’s cofounder. “A little rough on the outside, sweet on the inside. Like the neighborhood.”

A Catholic priest, O’Shea has lived and worked in Bed-Stuy for more than 15 years, and the café is his most recent effort to create better outcomes for Brooklyn youth.

His early work in the neighborhood took a more traditional approach: after-school basketball games and homework help. He started an SAT-prep class, but soon realized that the young men he was trying to help were too far behind academically and that college was something few of them could realistically shoot for.

“We would have 100 guys in our basketball program, and they were nice guys, but the outcomes in their lives were terrible,” he says. “They dropped out, went to jail, got killed. If you saw someone go to college, it was one in 100.”

O’Shea realized he needed a new approach. A teenager helped him find it.

Efrain Hernandez was only 13 when he first met O’Shea, but he already had a steady stream of illegal income from fake raffle tickets. He was eventually arrested, and O’Shea visited him in prison every week, giving him news from the block (including the death of a close friend) and brainstorming with him about how they could make things better.

By the time Hernandez got out, he was on a mission.

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“I feel like nobody should go through what I went through — being incarcerated and losing a best friend, nobody should go through that,” he says.

Hernandez and O’Shea wanted to change the street commerce in the neighborhood by providing young men with positive ways to earn money and engage with the community. In 2011, O’Shea and Hernandez founded a donor-funded nonprofit called the Vernon Avenue Project (VAP) and set up vegetable carts and Christmas tree stands. Instead of selling crack, young men could sling apples.

Profits were low but promise was high — there were plenty of willing fruit salesmen, and several churches welcomed the produce carts to their sidewalks on Sundays — so O’Shea and Hernandez decided to graduate from carts to a café.

Neither had ever owned a business or worked in a café, and Hernandez says he had never even made a pot of coffee. But they learned by doing, and ReConnect Café launched last summer. At its sister establishment, ReConnect Bakery, based at the Moore Street Market, youth make everything from Bed-Stuy cookies to apple turnovers to empanadas, which the café sells alongside coffee drinks and fresh-pressed juice.

The two businesses have employed 20 to 30 men between the ages of 18 and 24 so far (the organization works exclusively with men, since they are often the most at risk), offering them what is usually their first real job.

“Most young people have never had jobs around here, never seen jobs around here,” O’Shea says. “So the idea is to build some capacity and help build their confidence. They can work and grow, then they can move on to some other transition plan.”

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Neighborhood craft roaster Kitten Coffee donated a grinder and espresso machine and signed on to train the ReConnect crew. Young men from the block were soon crafting hearts in the froth of cappuccinos, a change of circumstances that cuts right to the core of the café’s relationship with its quickly gentrifying neighborhood. Unlike the hipster baristas of Williamsburg and Park Slope, the men of ReConnect Café are serving customers who, by and large, move in very different circles than they do.

O’Shea says that’s part of the plan. The young men of the neighborhood are often vilified, not just by the newcomers, but by their own community. Seeing them at work, smiling and chatting with customers, puts them in a new light.

“I want them to learn this is their world,” he says. “If a white guy comes in, you can have a relationship with him just as much as with your buddy who is sitting in the corner.”

The café is already changing the neighborhood. O’Shea says realtors are listing proximity to ReConnect as a selling point in apartment listings. While he recognizes the risks of gentrification and the possibility that long-time residents could be pushed out, he believes the issue is complex and that ReConnect can be a force for good.

“The neighborhood was changing no matter what,” O’Shea says. “Someone was going to open the first café, and it wasn’t going to be these guys. I think a lot of people can see that. When retail happens, instead of it being Duane Reade and Starbucks, why can’t there be more projects like this one, which only cost us $30,000 to start?”

Edwin Lachapelle, an 18-year-old high school senior with a tattoo of the Brooklyn Bridge on his arm, has been on board with ReConnect since before they opened their doors. This is the first job he has ever had, and he’s grateful he didn’t end up flipping burgers for a fast-food chain.

“It is a social job, but I’m happy it’s not, like, a McDonald’s job,” he says. “In McDonald’s you see tons of people. People would come in there with rude attitudes all day. The café is a little more personal. Here you know people’s names and where they’re from.”

What O’Shea really wants is to change the conversation in the neighborhood. There have been days when, standing on Tompkins Street, he could count as many as 12 cops. He wants to invest in a different idea of community, a more positive show of force.

It seems to be working, at least for Lachapelle.

“What I used to do all day out here was just walk past the café,” he says. “I wouldn’t have no money in my pocket. Every day I would pace back and forth while my friends was in here working, and I had to wait on the block for them to get out of work. I thought, ‘I gotta get with the movement.’”

O’Shea will be the first to tell you that ReConnect is no fairy tale and that the handful of jobs won’t be enough to save the neighborhood from unequal opportunity or the downsides of gentrification. But O’Shea and Hernandez do hope to expand: Their goal is to open five businesses in five years, employing 500 people.

“When I came home [from prison], people looked up to me in the neighborhood, but for the wrong reasons,” Hernandez says. “I took that energy and made it positive.”

Photo Credit: Vicky Wasik

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Chelsey Simpson works for the National Farm to School Network. In her spare time, she writes about food systems and the persistent wonder that is New York.