Seven graduate from leadership academy



Blue Bear Cafe cooks up success

Walking past Mount Airy High School along North South Street, you’ll notice the walls, sidewalks, and signage of a typical educational institution—but you probably don’t realize that there’s also a thriving business within its confines.

On a recent morning at the Blue Bear Cafe as the school year drew to a close, Ocean Davis, a senior, put the finishing touches on a fruit smoothie after previously serving cookies and brownies to a grateful recipient. Chances are that another customer will soon be ordering a freshly brewed cup of latte from the student-run establishment.

The coffee at the Blue Bear Cafe is said to be so delicious that teacher Ashley Pyles didn’t hesitate to compare what the children prepare to what an international coffee house chain offers:

“They make the best coffee through Starbucks every day,” Pyles said proudly.

In addition to a variety of coffees — including frappe, latte, and americano — different flavors of fruit smoothies, various sweet treats like Bundt cake, snacks, hot chocolate, apple cider, and more are available.

The menu at the Blue Bear Cafe also includes specialty drinks with what seems to have become a local sensation, bubble teas.

But perhaps the best product served there is success – cooked daily by apron-wearing student entrepreneurs who throughout the school year gain valuable business experience that can help them in their careers.

“It’s never about the coffee,” said Polly Long, Workforce Initiatives Coordinator, when discussing the mission, or the caffeine, the stimulating ingredient in this popular drink.

“It’s about the skills,” added Long, a longtime employee of the school system who has received a lot of credit for making the business on campus a reality.

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“A student-run cafe has been a dream of Polly Long for years,” reads a statement prepared in conjunction with the Blue Bear Cafe program, which received special recognition from the city government during a recent council meeting. This statement also refers to the role that “students with exceptional talents” have played in their success.

The café, which was created in 2019, aims to provide young people with training in essential entry-level skills and create a path to employment in the service industry.

For example, junior Jennifer Griffin has her goal of becoming a pastry chef.

The Blue Bear Cafe is run by the School’s Department of Vocational Studies and is run by teachers Jennifer Gentry and Ashley Pyles alongside Long.

“Jennifer is kind of our pastry chef,” Gentry said of Griffin’s preferred role on the operation.

Approximately 10 students are enrolled in the program during any given academic year. They also regularly attend courses and work for the cafe in addition to a certain number of hours that constitute class times. It is open from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. during school terms.

Student Innovators

The Blue Bear Cafe occupies a strategic spot in the high school’s media center, providing an inviting environment to enjoy a drink or snack that arguably rivals any coffeehouse on the planet. The area is pleasantly lit by large windows facing the north-south street.

The location was arranged with the support of Goodwill Industries, Long said, which helped provide seed capital to purchase new furniture and accessories.

It is tastefully adorned with walls painted in soft shades of brown and olive green, on which phrases such as “serving kindness one cup of the time” and inspirational words such as “imagine”, “create”, “inspire” and others are printed.

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The students respond by constantly adding new drinks and even developing a website to promote the business. A Blue Bear Cafe Facebook page is available to help with orders.

The facility’s spick and span kitchen is located in an adjoining room, near a counter area where students check out library materials as part of the dual, harmonious existence between the two facilities. A gift shop specializing in student-made items is also located in the café and offers items such as mugs and t-shirts, as well as handmade items from local entrepreneurs.

Together with the culinary talents refined by the young people, other skills are learned that they can apply to many other professional ventures in addition to a café.

These include leadership, communication, organizational skills, and teamwork, as well as the real-world functions of public dealings with taking orders, giving change at the register, and processing credit card orders.

“You see it in real time,” Long said of the impression outsiders get when they can witness education being applied to an actual business. The students involved are a mix of high school and junior high school students who ensure a seamless transition with knowledge transfer coming and going.

“You’re basically learning how to run your own business,” Pyles noted.

While the cafe is closed for the summer before resuming business for the start of next school year, it’s popular with the public, who can call on campus and pick up orders.

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In other cases, large orders are even delivered to customers.

“We’re in the black,” Long said of the cost of that service given the rise in gas prices. “We’re trying to break even,” with all profits going directly back into the business.

“We use some of that money to take them (students) on field trips,” Gentry advised.

Long hopes to expand the Blue Bear Cafe to a downtown location if one can be found under the right circumstances.

City awards

The scent of success from the Blue Bear Cafe wafts through to City Hall a few miles away, as evidenced by the special recognition it received during a recent meeting of the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.

Pyles attended this session along with two students, Griffin and his classmate Shatavia Robison, who were there to give a presentation on the program which was highlighted by the girls handing out chocolate chip cookies to those in attendance.

The cookies came in colorful packaging with labels extolling sentiments like “be nice” and “choose happiness.”

“This program is about our kids first,” Pyles said of the effort, which “just blew me away.”

“The Blue Bear Cafe is one of the brightest lights of the Mount Airy school system,” noted Commissioner Jon Cawley, thanking Polly Long for her service.

“I know you will go far in life,” Commissioner Marie Wood told the students.

“Great job ladies,” said Joe Zalescik of the board.

“That’s what a community like Mount Airy is and can be,” Mayor Ron Niland said of the cafe’s success.



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