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A unique Denver coffee shop has lost half its business due to nearby construction. It’s pleading for community help.

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Cacophony behind the coffee bar starts off many mornings at Prodigy Coffeehouse in Denver’s Globeville neighborhood, waking up the earliest customers before they’ve even had their first cup. 

But since late March, the constant whir of the espresso machine and the accompanying whoosh of the steam wand have quieted down as the flow of patrons has slowed.

Day-to-day sales at the coffee shop, which opened in September 2022, have been slashed in half as construction has overwhelmed the area and at times fenced off the shop, leading customers to believe it’s closed, according to Jeslin Shahrezaei, executive director of the nonprofit, Prodigy Ventures, behind the coffeeshop.

Construction and a closed block of 45th Ave. are seen outside Prodigy Coffeehouse’s Globeville location April 22, 2024. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

The downturn cuts into more than Prodigy Coffeehouse’s bottom line: It also diminishes the on-the-job training opportunities for the baristas, or apprentices — all young adults, many who live in the neighborhood and have turned to the coffee shop to gain a sense of stability and jump-start their careers.

“If there’s no customers, apprentices aren’t learning,” Shahrezaei said. “They’re not understanding how to engage with the community. They’re not applying their technical skills and making drinks. They’re not celebrating success in a team setting. They’re not having any of those experiences because the shop is virtually dead. And so we have to ask ourselves, is this the right place for us? Because if there’s no business, there’s no apprenticeship.”

The cafe, which has another location that opened near Colorado Boulevard in 2015, has become a gentle landing pad for young adults who haven’t quite mapped out their future. The spot is part-coffeehouse, part-haven for the 25 apprentices and seven staff members who keep both shops humming. That’s one of the reasons that the nonprofit is pleading with the community for support, including through an online giving campaign, to help carry its staff through the lulls in business brought on by construction to improve pedestrian access in the neighborhood.

Israel Espinosa mixes a matcha drink at Prodigy Coffeehouse. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Shahrezaei said the Globeville shop — located near the corner of East 45th Avenue and Broadway, just below where Interstates 70 and 25 intersect — is not on the verge of closing, but each day of fewer patrons means the organization will have to shift more of its focus to additional fundraising efforts. The shop has yet to reach its full potential, she said, as Prodigy Ventures took a hit in revenue this month after doubling its operating costs by opening the second location.

Meanwhile, demand for its yearlong apprenticeship program has only intensified, with the nonprofit counting 170 applications for 25 positions last year. 

“These neighborhoods have our next great leaders,” Shahrezaei said. “We’re offering them an opportunity to understand that greatness and to activate it. So we’re not doing anything that they couldn’t do on their own. We’re just giving them a space to activate it.”

It’s their space to enliven, after all, as most of the apprentices have long called the neighborhoods adjacent to both Prodigy locations home.

“They desire to continue to live in their neighborhood,” Shahrezaei said, “and they should be able to showcase what they want to see coming into these communities. And so apprenticeship programs increase their understanding on how they are leaders.”

Prodigy Coffeehouse first opened in fall 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

A second chance — followed by countless other chances

Neighborhood construction began this spring to improve conditions for pedestrians, and the city shut down West 44th Avenue between Broadway and Cherokee streets, according to Nancy Kuhn, spokesperson for Denver’s Department of Transportation and Infrastructure. 

“We can’t do the work and keep travel safe at the same (time),” Kuhn wrote in an email to The Colorado Sun.

The road is slated to open before the end of the month, but construction will continue into mid-June, Kuhn wrote, noting that the city placed a message board on Washington Street to indicate that local Businesses are still operating.

The project is funded mainly by Elevate Denver Bond dollars that taxpayers agreed to in November 2017. As part of the bond, $47.7 million is aimed at filling gaps in sidewalks, about $17 million of which is benefitting Denver’s Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods, Kuhn wrote.

Lola Valdez, center, makes a drink at Prodigy Coffeehouse. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Once the project is complete, the area will become more walkable and accessible for people with physical disabilities. It will also ease pedestrian access to the 41st and Fox Street light rail station and will reinforce safety, including for students walking to and from Garden Place Elementary School, according to Kuhn.

In the meantime, Prodigy Coffeehouse’s apprentices-turned-prodigies continue to hone their craft behind the coffee bar and carve out a few hours each week to learn about a range of life skills, including financial literacy, civic engagement, nutrition and active living in an onsite classroom.

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Among them is Lola Valdez, 20, who has perfected the art of topping a latte with steamed milk in the delicate shape of a tulip. Valdez, a Globeville resident, has climbed her way to one of the advanced roles in the apprenticeship program, training less experienced apprentices after she mastered the shop’s sales system, helped prepare drinks and took over the coffee bar. 

“Before I even found this place, I was very shy and not outspoken, but they’ve helped me come out of that shell and be willing to speak more and just talk to more people,” Valdez said. “And I feel like it’s helped me grow a lot within myself.”

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