For Christian Dennis and Bob Logue, the story of a common neighborhood on the east side of Philadelphia is also a tale of two cities.
For Logue, who is white, Frankford was safe, home to good schools, and full of opportunities. After growing up in the area, Logue embarked on a successful career as a restaurateur, sharing ownership of Philly’s Bodhi Coffee and the wildly popular Federal Donuts.
For Dennis, who is black, Frankford was heavily policed, rife with institutional racism, and devoid of opportunities for upward mobility. The most practical and lucrative employment option available to him—one that was exemplified by the most successful men in town—was selling drugs. He followed suit and eventually landed in prison.
Dennis and Logue are a generation apart in age, and their paths didn’t cross until 2016 at the Community College of Philadelphia, where the 37-year-old Dennis was graduating from the school’s Reentry Support Project (which focuses on students with criminal records). Logue, 55, was serving Federal Donuts at the event, and Dennis’s professor introduced them. “She knew I wanted to own my own business, and she thought that Logue and I had similar ideas about giving back and helping the community we come from,” says Dennis.
Logue, meanwhile, had already been struck by Dennis’s presence as he watched him give a celebratory speech during the graduation ceremony. “He had poise—an ability to speak sincerely about that particular opportunity, and also the opportunities that he’s never had,” Logue remembers. “As I listened, I was saying to myself, ‘This guy has all the same gifts that I have—but what a different life we’ve lived up to this point.’”
The two struck up a friendship that grew stronger over several weeks of coffee meetings. They bonded over their common desire to bridge the racial and socioeconomic divide that had made their experiences growing up in Frankford so starkly different. Before long, they brewed up an idea: to start a coffee roaster and distributor that would help to combat the city’s recidivism crisis (about a third of the inmates released from Philadelphia prisons are rearrested within a year) by hiring formerly incarcerated people.
Though both Dennis and Logue were enthusiastic about the plan, Dennis had some skepticism about his potential business partner’s motivations. “To be honest, I don’t have a strong trust of white men,” he explains. “Even to this day, white men come into impoverished neighborhoods with money, they buy property, they rebuild it, and typically they push out the people that are from there.” But Logue’s sincerity ultimately won him over. “He didn’t have to do what he was doing—with Federal Donuts, he was a partner at a very successful shop,” Dennis says. “So it seemed to me that he was genuine in what he was trying to do.”
They spent a year sketching out the logistics of their venture, conducting research and development and formulating flavor profiles with local roasters. In January 2017, Quaker City Coffee opened the doors of its Center City café and unveiled its online store. They entered their startup to compete at the 2017 WeWork Creator Awards, and their vision won them a $72,000 grant that allowed them, as Logue says, to “come storming out of the gate.”
Initially, the company operated both as a coffeehouse and distributor, with employees working multiple roles including supply clerk, packager, and barista. However, in 2018, Logue and Dennis handed ownership of the café over to an acquaintance of Logue’s who ran other successful coffee shops, and Quaker City exclusively became a wholesale coffee company. “We got back to where we should have been, which was focusing on the brand itself,” says Logue, who felt that the company’s reach would be wider if its efforts focused on getting the products on shelves. “We realized that people aren’t going to travel out of their way to this café because of its social impact,” he says.
Quaker City is one of many companies tackling recidivism—including New York City’s Greyston Bakery (which, like Quaker City, focuses its hiring efforts on formerly incarcerated job-seekers), and Oakland’s CORE Kitchen (a plant-based restaurant partially staffed by formerly incarcerated employees). Like Quaker City, these companies understand the symbiosis that can result when businesses are willing to emphasize not just hiring, but investing in, formerly incarcerated employees. “There are a lot of companies out there that will hire [formerly incarcerated employees] based upon local tax incentives, but commonly it’s a revolving door,” says Logue. “Like, ‘Here’s your minimum-wage job. It didn’t work out? OK, where’s the next person?’”
In contrast, Logue sees the Quaker City Coffee team as a family—and working with the company’s employees, he says, has shown him first-hand the value of that word. “A lot of times, in the world that I come from, workaholism is an accepted norm. Whereas with the folks that I work with, family comes first. It does, above and beyond everything else.” As a result, Logue and Dennis work hard to accommodate special circumstances, like allowing a Quaker City employee to pick up their kids from school midshift so they don’t have to walk home alone. “Quaker City survives by incorporating all of that understanding into our business model,” he adds.
For Dennis, Quaker City has also been an eye-opener. “Being able to hire a friend of mine who I did almost six years in prison with—that struck a chord with me,” he says. “I can give people jobs. I can try to change their narrative and the things that people say about them.”
The company also boosts his drive. “I believe that the American dream is the pursuit of happiness,” he explains. “Through all of the negativity, through all of the obstacles, every morning I get up, I look at my kids and my wife, and I say, ’Today is going to be the day.’ It’s that pursuit that actually pushes me.”