A Community of Caring: Q&A with Kenny Sipes, The Roosevelt Coffeehouse
Kenny Sipes is Founder of The Roosevelt Coffeehouse, a social enterprise dedicated to alleviating hunger, unclean water, and human trafficking. 300 East Long Street, Columbus. SocialVentures’ President & CEO, Allen Proctor, interviewed Kenny last fall, and a version of this Q&A first appeared in Columbus Business First.
Roosevelt Coffeehouse opened in 2015. Initially next door to Faith Mission, it is now surrounded by a whirlwind of apartment construction. At this popular place, you will see government officials, foundation leaders, entrepreneurs, creatives, and nonprofit executives interacting and welcoming newcomers into their network. A record player along the wall spins classic rock LPs, and at the counter you will see a featured nonprofit on the small chalkboard next to a tip jar shared equally between the Roosevelt staff and the featured nonprofit. In the words of its founder, Kenny Sipes, Roosevelt Coffeehouse has evolved into a community of caring, a place where people who care come to work and meet and help each other. Each table of this busy coffeehouse features a small folder packed with details about the social good created by the coffeehouse to impact the problems of hunger, unclean water, and human trafficking.
What led a youth minister from Pataskala to decide to become a social entrepreneur?
I led a youth mission trip to East St. Louis, an incredibly impoverished community and I was dismayed how little awareness our youth had about hard others have it from day to day. A trip to Lesotho showed me the devastation wrought by unavailable clean water, rampant AIDS fatalities, and forced recruitment of children into rebel armies. It was this guy from Pataskala’s road to Damascus. Several later trips to Cambodia showed me that the problems of hunger, clean water, and human trafficking were everywhere. A conference in Portland in 2012 about finding our roles in life convinced me that I needed to find a new path. That path led to Roosevelt Coffeehouse.
What impact do you want to make and how does your business make that happen?
We make coffee to save lives. We want to see the worldwide eradication of hunger, unclean water, and any type of slavery and human trafficking. Currently we help financially support those who are doing tremendous work in these areas. In addition to that we are mobilizing our customers into a community of doers to make impact in these areas.
Starting a new business is hard. What is the biggest obstacle you had to confront to bring your business to where it is today?
Unforeseen setbacks still rock me. Things like surprise invoices, equipment issues, and working through the steep learning curve of running a small business. The first obstacle was finding a location we could afford. We initially wanted to locate near the OSU campus at the Long Bookstore or the former Progressive Audio, but were not successful. So we spent a lot of time driving around the City.
What led you to choose your current location?
We were at a meeting with Gracehaven and were introduced to Gene Milhoan, a local architect who has been very active in outreach to the homeless community. He had a location next to the Faith Mission which could accommodate a coffee shop. So we talked and ultimately came up with the shared arrangement we have now.
Coffee is a competitive business. What would you tell a potential customer to choose Roosevelt over your competitors?
It begins with the way we interact with the community. Our core values are Love, Justice, Coffee, Humility, Optimism. These values show the community that our impact starts with our staff. We have been able to fund $60,000 in local and international impact in the past year. On each table we provide the specifics that millennials want to know. This detail is a tangible way to create a personal relationship between Roosevelt and our customers.
How do you choose whom to support?
We identify a cause each month and rotate the specific beneficiary every two weeks. We spend time researching to find the organizations that do great work in our three theme areas and then we create a personal relationship with them. In that way we know the impact our efforts are having.
What are you most proud of?
My staff and I have a direct relationship with our customers. We get to know them and what motivates them. We congratulate them on their successes and give them hope and encouragement when success seems elusive. And I am constantly amazed at the willingness of our customers to help each other out and make introductions to others who can help them in whatever they are trying to accomplish. These relationships allow us to have a sustainable impact on the community, so much more than we would have if we instead sought the one-off satisfaction of sending a donation check to a cause here and there.