Owners of It’s A Grind coffeehouse wanted a business that would put employees first for a change
Cannon Flowers is suddenly a hot speaker at business schools. The founder of the Human Rights Initiative and Dallas chapter of Immigration Equality is trying to revolutionize the way business is done.
His sponsorships on local non-commercial stations KERA and KNON say "Demeter Project, redefining the workplace." By redefining, Flowers means caring about his employees and contributing to the community.
The question he’s always asked first is whether Demeter Project is a non-profit company. Definitely not — although one goal of the company is to contribute back to the community while caring for their employees.
Flowers is astounded that his concept of business is that revolutionary.
Flowers said he and business partner Serena Simmons Connelly began talking about opening a business in 2005. The idea arose from the need he saw as chief executive officer of Human Rights Initiative.
His own personal experience with immigration began 12 years ago with his partner, RafiQ Salleh (see Dallas Voice, Sept. 18, 2008). That encouraged him to help others trying to get a new start in this country.
Flowers said, "Their first job in the United States can be a shock culturally."
He said many are not familiar with labor regulations and protections against sexual harassment and abusive treatment.
Flowers said he and Connelly decided: "We need to do something to create a business where, if you want to rebuild your life, there’s someplace to do it."
By "redefining the workplace as somewhere people can rebuild their lives," Flowers meant paying a living wage, covering everyone with health insurance and hiring a diverse group of employees. Each of his employees has a 401(k) and a health savings account.
For their first venture, the Demeter Project opened It’s a Grind, a coffeehouse in the new Ambrose Apartments building in Deep Ellum. Business has been growing steadily since opening last November. But it jumped 60 percent when the Green Line opened this month.
The front door of the coffee shop opens onto the Baylor Hospital station platform.
"We spent six months poring through businesses — franchises, non-franchises. We did know we wanted something in the service industry," Flowers said.
And when they decided on a franchise, they knew they didn’t want one that was on every corner.
Before settling on It’s A Grind, Flowers drove to California and stopped in every one of the company’s stores and met with the franchise’s founders in Long Beach.
But Flowers and Connelly took the concept and made it their own.
"We wanted a place where people could hang out," Flowers said.
They added a community room. The franchisor wasn’t keen on that, he said, until they saw the final design.
"We wanted it to be an open area, yet quiet enough to hold meetings," Flowers explained.
So far, Parkland Foundation has held its annual planning retreat at the Deep Ellum coffee house. Gaming groups, fantasy football groups, study groups and prayer groups have all used the community room.
Flowers said he’d love LGBT groups who need a meeting place to use his coffee shop.
Some It’s A Grind baristas have come from Grace Unlimited, a halfway house in Oak Cliff for women coming out of prison. New Friends New Life, which helps women coming out of prostitution, and Central Dallas Ministries have both referred employees.
"The only rule I make clear is [potential employees must] have never harmed another human," Flowers said.
He said some of his employees "grew up in the suburbs." But those workers are paired "with someone rebuilding their lives."
Most employees have been with the company since the opening.
Flowers’ background is in business. He was international finance controller for Texas Instruments Singapore.
Connelly has a background in social work. She has helped employees take advantage of their health benefits.
Joe Chung, the newest addition to the Demeter management team, is operations director.
"I love the culture where they care for each other," Chung said.
Chung said they are looking at expansion, but probably not with a second It’s A Grind location.
"We’ve learned there are people who can’t work in the service industry. Something in manufacturing or a process-driven business would be a nice compliment to what we do here," Flowers said.
"In terms of the screening process of looking for new businesses," Chung continued, "we’re searching for those businesses that will create the most jobs. We’re looking three to five years out.
"The idea needs to create a profit but also create jobs."
Although there are several other coffee houses in the area, Flowers said his idea is unique.
"My branding is different. Something different is going on here," he said.
Chung said he keeps an eye on other coffee shops in the area. But Flowers said he thinks what goes around, comes around.
"I believe in business karma. If there’s someone trying to put me out of business, I believe it’ll come right back," he said.
Plus they have that fantastic location, right on the Baylor Hospital station platform.
Demeter Project founder Cannon Flowers has experienced immigration nightmares with his partner RafiQ Salleh. Together they helped create Immigration Equality and the Human Rights Initiative. Read Salleh’s story about how RafiQ Salleh was confused with a Guantanamo prisoner and stranded in Singapore, a Dallas Voice exclusive from Sept. 2008:
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 24, 2009.