Words and photos by Chris Clemens
Jessica was born in Canandaigua and grew up with five brothers and sisters. Her parents weren’t problem drinkers, and she describes her upbringing as fairly normal. Despite her reluctance to try any mood-altering chemicals, she ran with a crowd in high school that might be described as "rough around the edges." Around 2006, before she reached the legal drinking age in New York State, she began drinking socially.
As Jessica progressed through her twenties, so did her drinking. Within just a few years, the occasional social lubricant became a daily self-prescribed medication. Numerous relationships fell victim to her love affair with alcohol. Countless jobs and daily responsibilities were placed second string to booze.
Waking up in the ICU at age 26 with doctors predicting her death by age 30 should’ve been enough, but that’s not how addiction works. She continued testing her fate with firewater.
When her brother brought her to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, Jessica caught a glimpse of a life better than the one she was living. Soon, she chose to stay in a halfway house in downtown Rochester with two dozen other women who were focused on just surviving the next 24 hours. To remain qualified for residence, the women are required to work a certain number of volunteer hours. When a counselor presented her with a list of local non-profit organizations, Jessica knew there was only one she wanted to be part of: Coffee Connection.
Throughout my exploration of New York State’s coffee scene I’ve encountered a number of roasters that give back to the community in some way. They may donate to causes and support local organizations, but first and foremost they are still a for-profit entity.
There's a long list of things that make the mission of Coffee Connection unique, but most notably it is the only non-profit coffee roaster in the state - one with multiple cafes and even a catering leg. At Coffee Connection, the lives of the women working behind the counter are the primary focus, and the coffee shops allow that focus to blossom.
The non-profit organization was established in 2001 by Nancy Sawyer-Molina. Her vision was to provide an employment training platform for women recovering from addiction. Coffee Connection began as a small shop on South Avenue in the South Wedge neighborhood of Rochester. However, employing a staff consisting exclusively of people entirely down on their luck proved difficult at best. Much like the fortitude of those fighting the personal demon of addiction, Coffee Connection forged ahead in the face of meager funding and HR hurdles.
In 2006, there were certainly places in Rochester that were roasting coffee, but nothing near the booming scene that we celebrate today. At around the same time that Jessica was first experimenting with alcohol, Coffee Connection added a more than ample Probat L12 roaster purchased for them by a local benefactor. Expanding their shop into a wholesale roasting company allowed Coffee Connection to not only reach new customers, but also to expand their employment training offerings.
Today, Coffee Connection is led by Joy Bergfalk, who joined in 2011 when Nancy Molina-Sawyer retired and moved to the warmer climate of Peru. Bergfalk’s already well-established efforts toward a similar mission to Molina-Sawyer’s made her an ideal candidate to assume the role of executive director.
Bergfalk brought years of dedication to the effort of supporting women in recovery, through her own non-profit established in 2006. When Bergfalk's Program Empower joined forces with Coffee Connection, the stage was set for growth both within the organization and among the women the organization supports.
(In 2014, Coffee Connection was awarded a $25,000 grant through the Jaffe Awards.)
Coffee Connection celebrates the success of three locations. The South Ave location in the South Wedge neighborhood is now across the street from their original location. Just one year after Bergfalk began her leadership, they rescued a former greenhouse on Main Street in the North Winton Village. A third location, not open to the public, was opened recently in Charlotte to support their thriving catering business.
The quintessential coffee shop feel is deeply rooted in every nook and cranny. Morning regulars sit with laptops or newspapers. Lunch patrons meet friends for a piece of the (amazing) quiche of the day or a bowl of hearty soup. Evenings host the same type of poetry readings or acoustic jams we all attended at Java’s back in the 90s.
To gain more insight about the inner workings of Coffee Connection, I spent a lot of time chatting with the women who are employed at each of the shops. Operating the roaster one day was Sara Corter, one of Connection’s longest standing employees.
“I’ve been sober for years, but my [legal] record means no one wants me," she said. "Joy and the girls here, they don’t see me as an addict or a former convict, they see me as a needed member of the team.”
Her words were solidified as I drank a French roast and sat in on one of the most unorthodox staff meetings I’ve ever witnessed. After some training and discussion about fiscal responsibility as a business, each person present shared a bit with the group about “where they are at” in life and their recovery. While the staff meeting is indeed an opportunity for the executive director to check-in with her staff and address issues regarding the business, it also played out much like a peer-mediated support group - including tears, laughter, and each person in the group receiving a blessing. (Yes, even me.)
As I sat in the nearly two-hour staff meeting, I was struck by the nature of the people around the table. This was a group of women who never knew one another while actively drinking or using. Now, though, life is different.
“I’ve never been part of anything like this," said an employee named Fana. "We need each other.”
Though my presence in the meeting was obvious, I didn’t get the sense she was saying it for my sake. She was telling the other women in the group - and possibly even herself.
Coffee Connection is most certainly serving coffee (and an outstanding quiche), but the mission is to serve much more. The threads of community and support stitch together the fabric of a coffee shop that outwardly appears to be a common cafe, but inwardly is the lifeline to the countless women who are seeking refuge from an endless internal battle.
It’s a lifeline to women like Sara, who shows up to roast coffee instead of having to show up for court dates. It’s a lifeline to women like Jessica, who is now an assistant manager at a cafe, instead of laying in the ICU with alcohol-induced seizures. It’s a lifeline to Rochester, a city that celebrates one of the most vibrant coffee scenes in the state.
Even if you haven’t visited one of their brick-and-mortar locations yet, there’s a good chance you’ve had their coffee. If you’ve had an event catered by Aramark or if you’ve ever been in the waiting room of a Van Bortel dealership, you’ve been served Coffee Connection’s beans. Cafes at the University of Rochester serve Coffee Connection products. You can buy bags to brew at home at Hart’s Grocers.
Through more than 15 years of service to the community, Coffee Connection is quietly connected to the beating heart of the city’s thriving coffee scene.