PILSEN — Most people leave high school with knowledge in a smattering of core subjects — but some students from a Pilsen Jesuit high school can now put “helped open and operate a coffee shop” on their resumes.
Holy Grounds Coffee Shop, inside Pilsen’s St. Paul Catholic Church at 2127 W. 22nd Place, is run and staffed by students and graduates of the nearby Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, 1852 W. 22nd Place.
Itzel Cebrero, a 2021 graduate of Cristo Rey, said she started working at Holy Grounds in April, before the coffee shop opened. She and another student, Alize Perez, were in charge of things like getting shop furniture, finding suppliers, developing a menu and buying equipment.
Cebrero said her favorite part, and the most helpful experience, was networking and figuring out who to contact for certain supplies and equipment.
“I had to contact people, call them, getting quotes for this and that,” said Cebrero, who is studying business and finance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Cebrero said she and other students were hired by St. Paul to work in the coffee shop thanks to an internship program through Centers for New Horizons, a non-profit that places young people in work positions and incentivizes businesses to hire them after internship.
Jorge Becerra, a senior at Cristo Rey, said he works on the store’s digital presence, managing its website and social media accounts, and he sometimes works behind the counter.
Becerra said the best skill he’s learned while working at the shop has been time management.
“I’m the type of person who likes to keep myself busy,” Becerra said. “I have work, I have school, I’m involved in a couple extracurriculars, so I want to make sure I don’t prioritize something too much.”
Holy Grounds opened in June, but it has been in the works for nearly three years, said Donna Graves, director of Parish Mission and Vitality at St. Paul. She said she pitched the idea of a mobile coffee cart inside the church, but it didn’t get off the ground.
Graves revisited the idea earlier this year and got a green light from church officials, including pastor Michael Enright. It was Enright’s idea to open a physical store inside the church, Graves said.
“I never would’ve thought of using this space,” Graves said of the lower level storage room that’s now home to Holy Grounds.
Graves and Enright faced two major obstacles, she said: They didn’t know anything about building a coffee shop, and they had a concrete floor that would need to be “busted up and fixed.”
But some parishioners happened to be architects who specialize in coffee shop design, and another person worked in the concrete business. They offered their services, Graves said.
“Parishioners really wanted this to happen,” Graves said. “So we said, ‘I guess we’re opening a coffee shop!’”
The room that used to store dozens of boxes of old papers and materials is now a colorful, brightly lit coffee shop, thanks to the tireless work of volunteers who helped with nearly every step of the process, from jackhammering the floor to picking the paint colors, Graves said.
Other store decisions were left to Cebrero and Perez, once the store transitioned from volunteers to the students, Graves said.
Graves said she wanted to hire young people to work from the start, but decided it would be even better to have students run it themselves.
“This is the best hands-on experience on how to open a business,” Graves said. “To say they do it themselves would be an understatement.”
Cebrero and Perez said they took many trips to IKEA to pick out furniture and Costco to get supplies, as well as going on Pinterest and visiting other coffee shops to get a feeling on what the layout should be.
Graves “would give us the money and say, ‘OK, we need this, this and this …’,” said Perez, now a freshman at University of Illinois Chicago studying finance. “She would give us a broad view of what she wanted. … [But] at the end of the day, we really liked the store because it was our own decisions.”
When the staff was developing the cafe’s drink menu, parishioners would come down after services and try their drinks for free, giving feedback on what was good and what needed work, Cebrero and Perez said.
Developing coffee drinks has been “the most fun and most challenging” part of working at the shop, Becerra said.
“Ordering the ingredients and trying it out is so fun, especially when you get to see people’s reactions and get their feedback,” Becerra said. “I’m already working ahead and thinking of drinks I can make next spring and summer.”
The shop’s current menu has a host of winter-themed options , including Becerra’s favorite creation: the Iced Polar Bear Latte, flavored with caramel, white mocha and vanilla cold foam, and served with a cookie.
Holy Grounds is open 6:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays and 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays at the church, 2127 W. 22nd Place. Mobile orders can be placed online for pickup.
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