Harvard undergraduates Tony Shu and Connor Schoen hope to improve the lives of the marginalized in their community by opening a cafe and doughnut shop that provides vocational training — and ideally secure employment — to young adults who are homeless in their neighborhood.
The two became friends while working for the Y2Y Harvard Square, a shelter run by Harvard students that assists young adults who are housing insecure.
“After we spoke with guests at the shelter, we learned more about the many barriers young adults experiencing homelessness face — related to job access, experience, and flexibility — that made it particularly difficult for them to find and maintain a stable job,” Shu said to Eater via email. “We decided that starting a social enterprise centered around this cafe would be a great way to address some of these barriers and really collaborate with and inspire the Harvard community to work together in solving this issue.”
As winners of the 2018 Harvard College Innovation Challenge and the Harvard Innovation and Ventures in Education competition, the two have partnered with Union Square Donuts, Y2Y Harvard Square, and various other Harvard organizations to open a cafe called Breaktime. Shu and Schoen’s GoFundMe page describes Breaktime as “a social enterprise that is opening a cafe near Harvard University to provide stable employment, vocational training, and career-based education to young adults experiencing homelessness.”
It’s notoriously difficult for people who are homeless to secure full-time work (and being homeless is expensive) — and when Shu and Schoen learned of the major barriers faced by young adults who are homeless (gaining access to employment opportunities in the first place being the largest), they decided they wanted to try to enact some positive change.
“These are people who are the same age as us, who we were connecting with and interacting with as other young folks,” Shu told Eater. “Some of them didn’t get the chance to go to school — which we recognize as a huge privilege. But whatever it was, we realized there’s a huge disparity in the Harvard area. And there shouldn’t be anyone in this are who’s struggling to find shelter or a job.”
After they received their awards from Harvard, Shu and Schoen began cold-calling and emailing different food organizations in the area looking for potential partnerships. Shu told Eater that Union Square Donuts responded most emphatically.
“Union Square Donuts was really supportive of our idea,” said Shu.
Though the exact relationship isn’t sorted out yet, Shu, Schoen, and Union Square Donuts have agreed on some sort of wholesale partnership.
“It expands their business, and it helps us because we don’t need to spend money on a production facility,” explained Shu.
Along with the doughnut makers and Y2Y Harvard Sqaure, Shu says Breaktime will be working with a number of other student-operated organizations and community service organizations at Harvard. He and Schoen hope Breaktime can be a first step en route to economic security for young adults who are currently economically insecure. And he also hopes they can set a better example for the business community at large.
“Running a business does not have to come at the expense of social impact,” said Shu. “You can do good and boost business at the same time. Think about our clientele, who will be mostly students: They know where they want to spend their money. A lot of young people want to spend their money at a place that has ethical core values. We’re voting with our dollars.”
Breaktime hasn’t announced a location just yet, but Shu told Eater that they hope to be open by September 15, 2018, so keep an eye out for Breaktime — and the delicious doughnuts they’ll be slinging — this autumn in the Harvard area.
Update, December 3, 2019: Breaktime announced via press release that it has signed a lease at 170 Portland St. in Boston’s West End, where the team will open a coffee shop, community space, and career center in conjunction with non-profit Community Work Services. Stay tuned for an opening timeline.