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p2270261.jpgNew Orleans was a whirlwind of coffee, community, and collecting new knowledge. After a night of dorm-life (Melanie’s brother let us crash on the floor of his freshman room) we headed over to a coffee shop that takes supporting the local community, especially post-Katrina, deeply to heart.

Fair Grinds is located near the Fair Grounds race track. Before opening Robert removed 5 layers of wall covering until they found the original beaded board with paintings from the 1930’s.

 

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In 2002 Robert, the owner, opened the doors of a business he felt provided “a service that was applicable to, and gave back to, the local community.” He asked himself what the local community needed and wanted. He recounted a story for us which he said embodied what it meant to be part of the community.

The thing that happened in our 1st months that was so sweet…one Saturday night the only fridge in the shop went out. Word spread that the store was going to have to close until the problem could be fixed. All the customers brought the milk home and kept it in their fridges. They even brought it back the next day! That brought home the power of ownership for me.

Many of Robert’s business practices were inspired by customers and by his own experiences as a customer. Instead of opening the doors exactly at 6am, Robert lets in the few folks who arrive early. They can sit inside the warm coffee shop (especially when it is cold or raining, etc) instead of being left in the cold. He said taking ideas from the customers empowers them and helps them have a sense of ownership in their local coffee shop.

Robert has created a space where the community can come together to support one another after the storm. He also explained that time in New Orleans is separated into two periods: “before the storm” and “after the storm”. Above the busy and bustling space where coffee is prepared and served is a space used for community organized events. Two large rooms and a bathroom are filled with bookshelves, yoga mats, chairs designed by local artists and tables. The front room has two large windows that let in beautiful afternoon light.  

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While we were chatting with Robert a woman approached him about using the space for an art class. Robert explained that he charges no rent for the space. He only asks that his staff are able to attend the meetings and classes if they are interested.

Robert also facilitates connection between community members. He introduced us to a local activist and told us about the food map that developed post-Katrina to ensure access to safe, nutritious, and enjoyable food: NOFFN.ORG. During our meeting a friend of Robert’s pointed out a woman from a local apartment building who was struggling to remain in her home. Robert immediately called a lawyer who lived in the local area and a few minutes later they were sitting together just a few tables away.

Fair Grinds employs a number of environmentally friendly practices: the to-go cups for cold drinks are made from biodegradable corn starch and the baked items come from numerous local bakers, and coffee grounds are given to community gardens right near the store. When municipal recycling disappeared post-storm, Robert found a place that would recycle cardboard and newspapers.

The icing on the cake of Fair Grounds was chocolate. All the chocolate sold in the store comes from Ghana, through two different companies. Fair Grinds gets their chocolate syrups and powders from The Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, which creates the finished chocolate product in-country (which is rare). We encourage you to read about the amazing work of this company by clicking on the link above; we were really impressed. Also, the chocolate bars sold in store come from Divine Chocolate: A Farmer-Owned Fair Trade Company.

Our morning at Fair Grinds was a stupendous introduction to New Orleans. We spent the afternoon with our friend Farhad talking about the struggles and successes of community building and local education post-Katrina.

– Sara Rose and Melanie

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