The Bodega pays it forward, the community pays it back
After much anticipation, The Bodega first opened its doors to the public in March of last year. The cozy coffee shop in Vienna, W.Va. whose mission is “Drink good coffee. Do good work.” welcomed customers of all kinds that day, a dream come true for owner Jennifer Wright. A community blossomed around The Bodega, one that fully embraced Wright’s belief in paying it forward. She could not have imagined, exactly one year later, that she would be closing the doors for the first time due to a global pandemic.
“You know how when a dream is planted in your heart and you let it live there for long enough that you sort of know what it’s supposed to become, but then when it becomes that you stand there completely shocked?” Wright said. “Because it’s just so much more than you could have even imagined it to be. Like you’re still just trying to pinch yourself, asking yourself whose life this is.”
The day they announced they were going to have to close their doors, Wright said she was undone. “All day long our customers were coming through the door to wish us a happy birthday and tell us they were so sorry we were having to close.”
A family who frequented the coffee shop weekly came in with a vase full of daffodils to celebrate the milestone. One older gentleman who lives alone and regularly spends his days reading at The Bodega came in for his coffee and pastry. “When we told him we were going to have to close, he cried and told us we were his lifeline.”
And then the coffee shop that had spent a year paying it forward for their community, started to see the acts of kindness returned one after another.
“Our tip jar was stuffed full of big bills. Kiddos we love made us cards. We got letters that made us cry and touched us deeply.”
An Outpouring of Love
Wright recalled one letter in particular that meant the world to her. “A young single momma shared in her letter that she was struggling with suicidal thoughts throughout the past year and that she would come to the Bodega to sit with her journal when she needed a space to work through her heart.” In the letter, the woman shared “You guys always remembered my name and were so kind. I just wanted you to have this [$60 wrapped up inside] because The Bodega helped save my life this year. I wish I could give you enough to help you make it through but what I can’t give in dollars I hope to make up in prayer.”
“That letter will stay in my office forever, top drawer,” said Wright. “I pray I see it every day to remind me why we’re doing what we do.”
These people aren’t just customers, said Wright. “They’ve become our tribe, our family. This ragtag group of folks that are creating space for one another and sitting at tables together and being human in a space where it’s safe to do so – they’ve blown us away.”
When she first found out that they would have to close, Wright admitted she had trouble finding her bearings. There was a steady stream of information being shared with her about what she should be applying for, how to protect her employees, and whether or not they were going to be able to make it.
“Quite honestly, I missed our space and our people and I was scared.”
For the first few weeks, she focused on learning more about the situation, not knowing how long it would last. But after processing the emotional impact and taking a big breath, Wright said she knew they were going to need to pivot. Although they couldn’t control much, she knew she wanted to continue to serve her tribe.
“So we made an announcement offering no contact pickup for some 1 lb bags of coffee. Our customers bought more coffee than we had available and we had to have more shipped for that Saturday morning,” said Wright. The next Saturday, they offered a special on pastries. “There were so many boxes of pastries – I think we baked 160 cinnamon rolls alone. It was nuts.”
Each time they threw out an idea, their community rallied with tremendous enthusiasm. Customers would comment to say they wanted to make sure they kept The Bodega around. It was enough to make Wright and her staff tear up. And then the gift card promotions came along, and again, the community showed up in full force.
“Oh my word, I could not believe it,” said Wright. “They just overwhelmed us with their kindness.”
Last month Grogg’s Home Services held a Shop Local promotion and the West Virginia Ventral Federal Credit Union followed up with their Give Love Challenge, offering gift card matches for local businesses. For both promotions, The Bodega was a top recipient. Wright said the gift card promotion days were her highest single days in sales for the year – record days for her first year in business.
“To stay in business, those numbers have to matter – but for me, the greater impact was the way we felt seen and cared for and supported in ways that will last in our memory for a very long time.”
Wright said gestures like these are proof that difficult times have the ability to bring out the best in our community. “I have a feeling we will be talking for a long time about when we had just celebrated one year of being in business and the very same day closed our doors for a time because of COVID-19 and how other businesses rallied around to help us make it through. We honestly can’t say thank you loud enough or enough times.”
The Bodega, like most small businesses in the Mid-Ohio Valley, has suffered from the economic impacts of the pandemic. Whereas a new business is typically just hitting their stride one year in, the complete shutdown has taken its toll.
Two weeks after closing the doors, Wright was faced with a decision. “I could either stay on the couch and be sad about what ‘should have been’ or I could get up and do my best to figure out what could be done. So, we have tried to do that.” Shifting that perspective has been huge, she said. It became a challenge to try to navigate the restrictions and guidelines while finding a way to serve and encourage their community to “do good work” and be good to one another.
“I had to keep repeating our motto – drink good coffee, do good work – to myself, so that I could focus on our core values and generate momentum around those things that matter most to us,” she said. “I think you’ll see an even better version of The Bodega come out of quarantine.”
As The Bodega lays out plans to reopen, Wright has spent time dreaming about the next chapter for her business – a blessing in disguise. Soon, the coffee shop will be rolling out its first monthly subscription box called “The Drink Good + Do Good Box.”
“Our hope is that our tribe would expand beyond here and that we would create a widespread movement to leverage the power of coffee to build community and do more good.”
Wright also hopes to expand the bakery by working with local teens in foster care to help meet the growing number of pastry orders they have received in recent weeks. “Being forced to adapt and be creative and think of new ways to do business and serve others has been a challenge for sure, but I think it has helped us grow in meaningful ways,” she said. “Our pivots will bring about some good things in the days to come.
One of those things is a coffee trailer, the concept for which was recently unveiled on social media. Wright hopes the trailer will offer her team additional opportunities to serve and give back to the community – the community that has given her so much in her first year.
“It’s funny,” said Wright, “but I’ve said for a long time that this is truly the coffee shop that love built because I started with nothing but a dream and a prayer.”
When Wright opened The Bodega, she did so without a large sum of funds at her disposal. She saved some of her salary as a teacher, sold many of her possessions and cashed in her retirement, risking it all because she believed she could make it and that it could be something special and sacred.
“The coffee shop that love built will mean something entirely different and have extra layers to it now,” she said. “Were it not for the love of our customers and this community we would have sunk for sure. Their faces and stories though have given us every reason to keep fighting for this space. It’s become more sacred than any of us knew.”