TRUMBULL — Before St. Joseph High School classes start for the day, four students are already on campus, preparing drinks at the only spot on campus that offers coffee.
They’re behind the counter at a makeshift cafe, taking orders, pouring lattes and making runs to the ice machine down the hall to serve up iced coffees to the students and faculty lined up in front of the counter.
The small sign placed on the counter welcomes customers to Cup O’ Joe, a completely student-run cafe at the private high school inspired by the Cafe de las Sonrisas, or Cafe of Smiles, in Granada, Nicaragua.
The cafe in Nicaragua is run by people with disabilities, and St Joseph students were introduced to the staff there while on an immersion trip to the country last summer.
“The reason it’s called the Cafe de Smiles is that he (Tio Antonio, the cafe’s founder) said you could say so much with a smile,” said Gigi Caruso, a sophomore and co-founder of the Trumbull version of the cafe. “And they really were the friendliest people.”
The idea of opening a similar cafe at St. Joseph’s came up during the trip, but it was when the group returned to Trumbull that the head of school brought up making the idea a reality.
”Individuals with disabilities in Nicaragua have no social services network to rely on, but this little industry makes life work for this special group,”said William Fitzgerald, head of school. “Their smiles won us over when we spent a morning with them last June, and we wanted to give back.”
After the school’s student government rejected the group’s funding request, Fitzgerald helped the group borrow about $2,000 from school funds to open the cafe. Once the students pay off the loan, they plan on donating proceeds to Nicaragua.
Cup O’Joe is on track to meet that goal — the cafe brought in around $300 in less than two weeks after its opening in May, according to the students.
Caruso, along with Brooke Robinson, Mari Adrzejewski and Isabella Iazzetta, did all the research and shopping with assistance from the school’s financial director and Fitzgerald. Robinson’s parents and Caruso donated some equipment and the group found a supplier in Maine with coffee beans from Nicaragua and researched where to buy supplies online.
The group has big plans for the cafe — they’re hoping to expand their menu to include tea and eventually smoothies. The administration has already taken measurements to add cabinets and other equipment to the area, and by the next school year, there will be cafe-style tables and chairs in the area to give it the feel of a coffee shop, the student baristas said.
“It was either wait for everything to get done and not open this year, or work with what we have and have it open,” Iazzetta said.
So with their coffee makers resting on chairs instead of counters, Cup O’ Joe is up and running. About 10 students total are helping run the cafe, but Cup O’ Joe is accepting applications for next year in hopes to expand their business.
“A lot of it right now is trial and error,” Andrzejewski said. “We are still young… we’re trying to balance everything, but everything we have done has been a learning experience for us. There’s not one thing that’s gone wrong here that we haven’t been able to learn from and come back better.”
The group is working to improve the products and service, and is hoping the venture will shape up to have the feel of a traditional cafe, with mementos of the school’s other immersion trips incorporated, like a world map and more photos.
“It’s been challenging, especially these past couple months getting ready for our soft opening, but I’d say now it’s really rewarding to see how willing the students are to come and support us because they know where the proceeds are going to, they know it’s for a good cause,” Robinson said.
“It’s really powerful to be able to give back, because it’s something that meant so much to us and we were exposed to such a different world when we went there,” Iazzetta said. “So it’s cool to be able to kind of do our part, because they gave us so much there and they were so willing to share absolutely everything they had.”