Creating a community space through coffee
By: Krysta Kearney
“The key to real lasting change is relationships and embedding yourself into people's lives.”
One day while sitting in an exceptionally hot hut, drenching with sweat in the Philippines on a soul searching journey, Melissa Villanueva had her first visions of owning a coffee shop. Once Villanueva has any type of vision, better watch out world, because it’s going to happen. Little did she know that now, in 2021 she would be the proud owner of four cafe’s, a roastery, event spaces and a boasting wholesale program. In a mere six years, the visions from the hut that day have far exceeded what she ever thought was possible. Villanueva is an entrepreneur and a strong community member with a driving force to create a more sustainable life for everyone around her. In this article Villanueva talks to Moxxi a bit about the identity of both herself and Brewpoint and the intentional pivots taken to promote growth and development.
If you have ever been to Elmhurst, IL you will have noticed the presence of Brewpoint Coffee with their multiple locations throughout the city. Most recently, they have expanded outside the city, to another suburb of Chicago with their newest location in Oak Park, IL. All of Brewpoint’s cafe’s speak volume for the coffee community and are more than just your average coffee shop. Amongst the 1,000’s of cafes around the US, their locations definitely stand out. From its origin, Villanueva vowed to build community spaces through coffee and create a social, environmental and economical impact both locally and globally. She recognized that coffee is a tool that sparks innovation and conversation and it has the ability to do way more than just keep people caffeinated. Every year Brewpoint expands on their mission to create a more conducive environment for their staff and community. As Villanueva puts it, they have created an ecosystem. They build a better world through authentic creative spaces. By constantly implementing new strategies, they are expanding their impact on the world.
“We believe in creating an ecosystem that revolves around our values of engagement, kindness, diversity, thoughtfulness, respect, and growth.” - Brewpoint Website
Another driving force behind the business is her commitment to represent strong women and minorities. 75% of the company's employees are social minorities; including gender, race, economic status and age. Environmentally, she has vowed that every quarter they make a sustainable change within the company whether it be big or small. They are committed to their employees, partners and the environment. For example, Brewpoint roastery pays their farmers $1 more per pound than what Fair Trade standards require.
“Melissa is most proud of building a thriving business that she 100% owns and leads. This is important because money often dictates an entrepreneur’s decisions, but if you have the power to fully dictate why you do what you do, you can build a system that is not just about profit, but is about social and environmental impact that tries to thoughtfully put people and planet first.” - Brewpoint Website
THE RISING SUN
Villanueva grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. While bouncing around from place to place and attending multiple schools, she became very familiar at a young age on how growth can happen through change. There were never huge intentions behind the physical moves, but as far as school goes, her parents always supported her when opportunities would arise. If a private school had a better math program, she would attend, if an opportunity would arise at a public school, she would switch schools, why not?!
“As a kid I was apt to choose change over consistency, so when the opportunities arose, I had no pushback, I was like, yeah I want to do this and my parents supported that.”
Not being scared of change is one of Villanueva’s strongest attributes. After attending a few different colleges, she eventually graduated from Wheaton College, an evangelical liberal arts school situated outside of Chicago, where she got a degree in Philosophy. Straight out of college, it wasn’t her major that landed her a job in corporate America but it was her summer job that did, where she went door to door selling books (out of all things!?). Interestingly enough, she was very good at this, like so good that she held the #4 title in sales in the country. With that type of status, she received a lot of business offers eventually landing her a job as the director of team development at Northwestern Mutual. The job was basically a dream job for a recent college graduate, she was making great money, helping grow the company and living a pretty good lifestyle, especially at her age.
"I was checking off all the boxes of what I thought success meant, in terms of, I was in Chicago, in a high-rise building, I had a corner office…looking over the city, but I wasn’t super fulfilled.”
She recalls discussing with her boss that things weren’t really lining up for her in terms of the values of the company and what her roles were. She felt like there was a lack of consistency in terms of company beliefs and how business was being executed. Eventually, she became unhappy and it just didn’t seem like she was in the right place, it wasn’t fitting for her.
“At that point in my life I had been so ingrained in the cultures that I was a part of that I really didn’t question it as much as I should have and it was catching up to me.”
Here she was, in a job that most would do anything for. She respected her position but it wasn’t fulfilling. As someone who did jump from school to school, culture to culture, place to place, she noticed she would start questioning things after a year or two within that given culture and critique it. Of course, she recognized that you need to compromise in some areas in life to gain in others but the balance was way too far outweighed. She felt like there was more out there for her, that she could make a greater impact, utilizing her knowledge and skills elsewhere.
In November of 2013, Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, devastating more than 14 million people with it’s category five storm conditions. Although she is Filipino American, she had very little connection to the area, but for some reason the catastrophe really rattled her. She was encouraged to become more in tune with the local Filipino American community, in which she found herself going to attend a Filipino church. Her first time approaching the church, she was greeted by the door person, the exchange was a bit awkward being that they both felt an instant connection. That was her first time meeting Angelo, her now husband, partner in life and business.
In the first weeks of becoming friends, she confided in him about her struggles at work and he basically said, Sometimes you just need to pull the trigger! That was enough for her to make a change. She quit her job the next day and decided to go to the Philippines on a self discovery trip to become more in tune with herself and her roots.
She took these few months in the Philippines to understand what she really wanted to do with her life. The mental and physical space was just what she needed. While there, she traveled during the weeks and helped with typhoon relief on the weekends, as an outsider there was only so much she could do that would actually be helpful. So here we are, back at the super hot hut, to that point in life where Villanueva had that vision, the one of building community spaces through coffee. Most of us can look back on life and think of those few pivotal points, where we took risks, that really have shaped us into who we are today. The visions for her became very clear, she knew that coffee was something that is accessible to most everyone. People can afford to sit down for a two dollar cup of coffee, at least a lot more people can, it’s much cheaper than committing to a lunch. She could see an avenue, a way for her to become more involved in a community and fill the void that she hadn’t been getting in corporate life.
“Coffee on an economic basis is a lot more affordable for people (to come in) on a daily basis, so they can afford a two to three dollar cup of coffee, so you end up building a unique community through coffee shops.”
Having worked at a Starbucks in high school as a barista, she had some experience, but that was it. Not enough to open a whole café! Once back in the states, she expressed her visions to Angelo, and he too had always wanted to do something similar. She had his support 100%. That is how Angelo is with everything, when they first started dating she went to the Philippines, then the shop, he was always all in, from the beginning. Their complementary nature has become a driving force. Villanueva says Angelo is very idealistic where if you give her a vision, she is gonna do it, together they create a balance. So here they were, sharing this vision and planned to take a few years to develop it, while pursuing other things.
“I get back from the Philippines and find this espresso machine on Craigslist (to start toying around with) and end up finding this coffee shop in Elmhurst instead. Angelo and I visited it and I remember our stomachs just fell, it was too perfect to pass up.”
They didn’t feel like they had a choice, they had to make it work. It’s exactly what they had talked about. A little premature? Maybe...but if there is a will there is a way, especially with Villanueva. Within a month they bought the shop. They pooled together any money they both had, asked their parents to help and through all the funding came up with a total of $55,000. Hence, the journey began.
“We were only dating for 6 or 7 months, find this coffee shop, Angelo gives his life savings to his (7 month) girlfriend to open a coffee shop, then we ask both our parents for additional funding!??!”
The whole thing was completely outlandish, no one in their right mind would do this right? Well, before they knew it, they had the keys to the shop and in retrospect, it ended up being the best decision they ever made. They had no business plan, no additional money…it was a total risk. She didn’t know how to run a business, let alone do payroll. All of it was completely foreign. To add to it, within the first five months of the company, they got engaged and married. Within days of purchasing the shop and a quick clean up of the space, they were open and Brewpoint was born.
“Coffee is such a hard thing to not only make sustainable but profitable. To realize that coffee (in and of itself) is an industry that doesn’t make a ton of sense. If you look at wine and craft beer, there is such a line between specialty wine and cheap wine, in terms of what people are going to pay. But for coffee, the spectrum is so much smaller but the work that is being done to make specialty coffee is not being compensated and at the end of the day I believe Starbucks creates the expectation for the average consumer but the conversation needs to start happening.”
The first thing she and Angelo realized is that maybe they could make a living but there was no way that her team could make a sustainable living based on the earnings of their coffee shop alone. That was all the motivation she needed to lead Brewpoint to expand to their second cafe and to build a roastery so they could start roasting on their own and expand their coffee program to more stores.
“Growth was a byproduct of wanting to take care of our team first and foremost.”
Villanueva became completely invested in her business and the community of Elmhurst. Not only is she a local business owner but is also an economic development commissioner. She became interested in how coffee shops affect community, economic development and the space that they provide for people to connect. It became more and more intriguing to find ways that they could make the values at their shop affect the community. Specifically, as a woman of color in a predominantly white community.
“Me being the face of the company has been very intentional. I want little girls that look like me to see that they can do whatever they want to do. They can be a CEO, they can be an entrepreneur, whatever.”
FULL SUN (CURRENT DAY)
It had been her initial intention to spark change and growth within Elmhurst alone, but after last year, with the pandemic, the racial riots, literally all the world's challenges, Villanueva shifted internally. She felt like she could make a bigger difference if they broadened their spectrum. Thankfully, Brewpoint as a business did ok during the pandemic. They did have to constantly shift, pivot and make changes such as shut down some cafe’s for periods of time but between the shops they managed to keep open and the government funding they have been able to stay afloat. With everything else that happened in 2020 politically and with the highlight of the racial injustices in America, she struggled internally.
“When it came to the racial reckoning, that was something that was really tough for me. As an Asian American woman, simulation is my M.O.. I know how to be successful in white communities, I know how to push down parts of myself and elevate other parts of myself in order to be comfortable for everyone but when the murder of George Floyd happened and the conversation started to happen I became a person that people looked to, to talk about race. All that was incredibly difficult because I was so used to not talking about that because it was so personal for me. It was so painful for me.”
It became incredibly difficult for her to have a voice and understand how to navigate these conversations. She ended up becoming involved politically in Elmhurst. Trying to find a balance in her own voice while also being a prominent business owner (during a pandemic) presented it’s challenges. It came down to a moment for her, when she was turned down the position of being an alderperson. They said it was illegal (for the next eight years) for her to become one. This decision was based on a law that had never been used in that particular fashion before. She is sure that to them it wasn’t perceived as an issue of color, but to her personally, it was. This experience combined with all the unrest in the country ignited her decision to start investing in black and brown communities. Elmhurst is a very affluent, primarily white community and by only being in that area, what is she really doing to help with social change?
“At the end of the day I was also learning that my own assimilation has done harm to black and brown communities. I feel my own reckoning internally with what I want to do but I also know I can’t do that without being a part of black and brown communities on a personal basis."
Brewpoint’s most recent addition is their new café in Oak Park, IL which is about twenty minutes from Elmhurst. This move was very intentional. On a national level, they are a community that has continually tried to racially integrate, basically since the civil rights movement.
“Going to Oak Park was an intentional move semi on a professional basis but also on a personal basis of like, I need to learn who I am and the only way of figuring that out is by being a part of a community who's doing this work. That's going to shape my platform, whether or not I'm going to go into politics...all these different things.”
Brewpoint Craft just opened a couple months ago and is a completely new style café and branding for Brewpoint Coffee. They are keeping their same quality coffee while adding cocktails and charcuterie and focusing on providing clean air with signature open floor plans. By introducing these additional food and drink items, they hope to achieve an even greater, balanced community gathering space with these new environments for people to connect. They turned one of the cafe’s in Elmhurst into a craft location as well and plan to continue to expand on the craft locations in the future.
ON THE HORIZON
Between Oak Park and Elmhurst rests a town called Maywood. It's highly recognized in the media right now because Fred Hampton is from there, who was an American activist and chairman of the Chicago Black Panther Party. Netflix just released a movie called Judas and the Black Messiah, which is based on his life and activism. The town itself is in a blight and could use a whole lot of love, revitalization. She and her husband are planning on moving there at the end of the year and she has already spoken to town politicians about her hopes to bring in a company called Allies for Community Business. They are a nonprofit financial firm that helps companies gain access to capital by networking and mentoring and are specifically for black, brown and woman owned businesses. Viillanueva’s hope is to help build an economic boom in Mayville that is intentional and rooted with the community that already exists there.
“I’ve seen what our company can do in a place like Elmhurst, I know that it works in a place like Oak Park but what I'm incredibly intrigued by is what I can bring not just as Brewpoint, but my talents as well to a place like Maywood and invest in black, brown and woman entrepreneurship to create a thriving downtown to help revitalize the area but in a way that's not super corporate, that’s very listening oriented, that doesn’t gentrify as much. There’s going to be cultural shifts with any changes of economics but can you do it in a way that’s thoughtful to bring people that are in the community to be brought alongside and cared for in the growth. At the end of the day, that brings generational wealth and that affects black and brown people and their families at large.”
Villanueva is incredibly excited for this new chapter. She knows that she can make an even larger impact than she already has and can’t wait to give to the Maywood community. There are both professional and personal advantages to moving to the area. She and Angelo are going to be purchasing their first home and putting down some roots. As far as entrepreneurship is concerned, the possibilities are endless. Villanueva says, “The key to real lasting change is relationships and embedding yourself into people's lives.”
She recognizes the disparities in the specialty coffee industry and wants to not only help her local communities but also help farmers maintain a sustainable livelihood. They are in a perpetual state of debt, trying to maintain their coffee farms, which do not make them enough money to even pay for the farming. Most of Brewpoint’s coffee is from direct relationships with farmers but she hopes in the next few years that all their coffee is and that Brewpoint is helping create a sustainable life for farmers.
“Our hope and our goal is that we work directly with farmers. We are (intentionally) paying them more than It costs to make the coffee, so they can keep farming the coffee.”
By putting more money in farmers pockets, she hopes that it will help create a more sustainable coffee industry. The farmers are in serious debt and without farmers, there is no coffee. In addition, by next year, she plans to provide health insurance for all senior level employees. It’s important to be able to build the world they want to see through their visions in the company, in order to take care of their people.
Talk about a woman with ambition, a woman with power. Her actions most definitely inspire others to do better, and achieve more, they help women and girls know that they can do anything they put their mind to. Anything is obtainable, just keep that forward direction moving and show your strengths to yourself and others. Villanueva has always put other people first, and she is seeing the rewards from that, the opportunities for others that she has created.
Q + A
Q: Any advice on taking a leap?
“A lot of times taking a leap, it's not just a blind leap, a lot of times you are taking the assessments of your own self. It’s like, ‘Do you think you can do this?’ I do think that confidence and an honest assessment is really important.”
Q: Do you have any words for women?
“At the end of the day, we need more women doing the things they want to see in the world. If this past year has bought us anything, the diversity of perspective and voice truly makes the world a better place. The turning of the tides of having more perspectives is finally being semi embraced (depending on where you’re at). This is our time. This is the time to go for the roles that don't feel comfortable trying. So, I feel like we’re going to see more and more of a wave of those things. A diversity of voices changing those issues we’re part of.
Q: What does the word Moxxi mean to you?
“Strength and endurance, perseverance, putting your head down and being tunnel vision for the vision you have...and getting it done.”