Fenway Coffee Shop Benefits From Local Product Partnerships

By Hilary Ribons
BU News Service

Since its doors opened last November, Neighborhoods Cafe has offered area residents direct-trade coffee and organic locally-sourced goods with the goal of connecting locals philanthropically while serving more than two dozen varieties of sweet and savory crêpes.

As its one-year anniversary approaches, the small cafe, one of the few independently owned coffee shops in Fenway, continues to buzz with customers. It was featured on an episode of HGTV’s House Hunters and sales have increased every month since it opened, said owner and Fenway resident Betsy Hill.

Hill said she never thought she would own a coffee shop. A Boston University graduate, she took a job working at Starbucks in Fenway as a temporary position while looking for a job in her chosen field of international relations. She stayed through the first three years of her marriage and the birth of her three children because she enjoyed the coffee—and the sense of community working there offered.

Hill said when she left Starbucks, a lot had opened up at 96 Peterborough St., where Neighborhoods now stands.

“I would take my kids to play across the street from that park, and look and say, ‘Why on earth is no one putting in a really good coffee shop?’ I tried to get other people to do it, and they wouldn’t, so I wrote a business plan, and I did it,” said Hill.

Through preliminary research, Hill found there was a desire for a coffee shop to be opened and that the target “coffee-drinking” market was present in the neighborhood.
At the time the lot opened up, Hill and her husband were deciding whether to buy a house in the suburbs with a yard, or to stay in Fenway and open the coffee shop. They chose to stay in Fenway to open the shop and because of their love for the area.

The shop is located on a stretch of Peterborough Street in Fenway filled with other small, independent restaurants including El Pelón Taqueria, in addition to a Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and Panera in close proximity—though the closest independent coffee shop is over a mile away. Neighborhoods has seven tables lined up against a wooden booth that stretches the length of the wall with chairs on the other side of the tables. Its small size often encourages customers to share tables with one another.

“We wanted to create a place for people that were part of Fenway, not just part of Boston,” said Hill. “A place where it was O.K. to say ‘hi’ to the person in front of you in line. That’s not strange here.”

Neighborhoods serves local, organic and fairly traded items. Even the crêpes, made from a recipe Hill got from her host family from a year she spent abroad in Paris in high school, feature cage-free chicken and eggs. The crêpe menu highlight is called “sweet simplicity” with 100% fair trade Belgian chocolate hazelnut spread with strawberries or bananas, topped with a dusting of powdered sugar, said Hill.

Neighborhoods gets its coffee beans from George Howell, a local coffee roaster and connoisseur who sold his well-known chain of coffee shops to Starbucks in the 1990s.

Howell is known as the person who pioneered responsible sourcing.

“He’s the first person who cared about the growers and tried to improve the taste of coffee based on growing practices,” said Hill.

Besides serving local, organic and fair trade items, Neighborhoods further builds its community feel by featuring products from local entrepreneurs every month and donates the proceeds towards a cause. This month’s entrepreneur sells homemade coffee breakfast bars, and the proceeds will go to The One Fund.

According to a 2013 National Coffee Drinking Trends study, published by the National Coffee Association, there was a 5% increase in coffee consumption over the past year alone. However, business across the board is still slower than pre-recession times.

“We haven’t seen post-2010 a significant upturn in business formation. It’s been increasing steadily, but not like former post-recession times,” said Erik Molander, an executive in residence and a member of the Strategy and Innovation Department at Boston University’s School of Management

He added that the success of businesses like Neighborhoods can be attributed to how receptive the business is to the community’s needs.

While Hill said her decision to serve local, organic and direct-trade items was based on the desire to operate a business she could be proud of, the cafe’s success may be partially attributed to how well this business model fits the desires of Fenway’s residents. Molander recognized Fenway as home to, among other demographics, students and young professionals.

“The movement towards being a ‘locavore’ in your food habits has started with precisely those groups—students and young professionals that demand locally grown or fair-trade items. It resonates very deeply with them,” said Molander.

Small businesses like Neighborhoods have an advantage over chains because it can customize offerings to the needs and wants of the community.

“They have more flexibility in where they source and pay more attention from whom they source,” said Molander.

Neighborhoods also fosters a community atmosphere. “I once had a customer tell me she comes in here because the employees smile,” said Charlotte Mosinki, manager, member of the team that opened Neighborhoods, and Hill’s long-time friend.

“We try to create a home element in a coffee shop,” said Hill. “We want people to feel welcome in our ‘house.’”

Indeed, Neighborhoods has a loyal following of regulars, who are often greeted by name at the door.

“I’ve been coming since they opened,” said Joli Divonsaraf, a long-time Fenway resident who works at MIT. Besides the cappuccinos and crêpes, Divonsaraf cited the ambience for why she frequents Neighborhoods. “It just feels like a very neighborhood-ly kind of place,” she added.

Katie and Colton Owsley of Brighton make trips to Fenway just for Neighborhoods.

“I like the coffee and the atmosphere. And the crêpes, of course, are delicious. It has a lot to offer,” said Colton.

Charles Johnson, who recently moved to Fenway, can often be seen sitting at one of the cafe’s tables with an iPad, a laptop, and a fresh cup of coffee. New to Fenway, Johnson has already identified Neighborhoods as his favorite spot.

“This is the go-to,” said Johnson, over a Spanish latte, his favorite. “This is, I would say, the best coffee in the neighborhood. Not that I’ve explored as much as I should, but the staff is super friendly, the coffee comes from George Howell, very high quality beans.”

Johnson runs a sales team at a local MIT-based start-up and comes to Neighborhoods during work breaks.

“It’s a great break,” he said. “It’s a great place to hang out, get caffeinated, relax for a minute, deal with stuff on the computer and then get right back into the thick of things.”

This article is being published under an arrangement between the Boston Globe and the Boston University News Service.

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