It was no ordinary business meeting in State College’s Good Day Café on the morning of April 1. All five participants were far too enthusiastic.
And even though the joe is always hearty at the coffee shop at 286 W. Hamilton Ave., something more powerful than caffeine was energizing this gathering. Everyone at the table cared deeply about the same cause: providing meaningful employment to individuals with special needs.
Three leaders of Compassion Café, a coffee shop being established on the Jersey Shore, had traveled to State College to pick the brains of two leaders with Strawberry Fields, the agency that operates Good Day Café.
Hosting the gathering were Cindy Pasquinelli, CEO of Strawberry Fields, and Fran McDermid, director of program operations and the overseer for the local cafe. Visiting from Long Beach Island, New Jersey were Compassion Café’s co-founders, Erin Sharkey and her aunt, Sue Sharkey, together with board member Kevin Bradley.
In essence, this was a mentoring session with an established shop helping a newbie. But the blessings flowed both ways.
“It was amazing,” Erin Sharkey says. “It was exciting to spend the day in State College and see what we’ve imagined actually taking place.”
“It felt good to be able to share our experience in opening and operating Good Day Café,” Pasquinelli says. “Despite the setbacks we have had with COVID-19, I left the meeting reenergized about our shop and our mission.”
ACQUAINTANCE BRINGS COLLABORATION
So how did the folks from LBI get connected to the folks from Happy Valley? Well, I’ll tell you since I had a front row seat.
A small Christian fellowship group was coming together last year, and my State College buddy, Luke Healy, invited me to become the fifth member of this weekly Zoom gathering. Kevin Bradley had also joined the group, and before long I heard him mention the proposed coffee shop on Long Beach Island. Having written a 2019 column about Good Day Café, I sent him a link, and his enthusiastic response prodded me to arrange the mentoring time in State College.
OK, I know that’s standard stuff, but there’s more. And this is where the story becomes an entry in my “small world” file.
During her high school years, Erin Sharkey met a family with a son named Shane who battles cerebral palsy. Despite his severe disability—he’s non-verbal and needs a wheelchair—his zest for life captivated Erin.
After spending time with Shane and his wonderful family as they enjoyed summers on LBI, Erin chose to study special education in college. And, in fact, she lived with the family for two years because of their proximity to her campus. Today, Erin holds a master’s degree and board certification in the field of applied behavior analysis, and she’s a pillar of the Compassion Café cause.
PENN STATE FOOTBALL CONNECTION
As for the small world connection, the father of this family is Dave Szott, a Penn State football player who started on Joe Paterno’s offensive and defensive lines between 1986 and 1990. (Szott, a seventh round draft pick, played 14 years in the NFL and now serves as head of player development for the New York Jets.) Shane is Dave’s older son; Josh, the younger brother, is a wide receiver for Colgate University’s football team. Andrea, the mother in the Szott household, is still super-close to Erin (“She’s like a second mom.”) and is a member of the Compassion Café board.
Dave Szott was thrilled when he learned that the folks who gave such invaluable help to Compassion Café are from good ol’ State College. “That’s fantastic,” he said. “I’ll try to visit next year during the alumni golf outing.”
Don’t be shocked, Cindy and Fran, if a very large man with a big smile comes through Good Day Café’s door before too long. I gave him directions.
FIGHTING THE SAME BATTLE
Given that the two groups of café leaders face similar challenges — health and safety codes, COVID-based restrictions, funding concerns — it’s not surprising that they bonded quickly.
“It was just so natural,” McDermid says, “because the whole table was full of people who are on the same mission.”
Adds Pasquinelli, “I hope we were able to allay some fears about the community not coming out to support Compassion Café. We, too, worried during start-up that the State College community wouldn’t embrace our concept and mission. It felt really good to share our experiences and know we were helping them avoid some of the mistakes we made.”
The Long Beach Island guests were amazed by their time with Pasquinelli and McDermid. Says Erin, “It exceeded any expectations that Kevin or my Aunt Sue or I had of what the day would be like. They opened their arms to us and didn’t hold anything back.”
Bradley, my Zoom buddy who has served as CFO for two Fortune 500 companies, was just as pleased.
“They had a wealth of knowledge on how to run a special needs café,” he says. “They were incredibly generous and literally gave us their operating manual. But the key thing we saw was the employees. I was looking for how they could work the machines and handle the point of sale. But there was such a joy about them. It was exhilarating for us.”
INSIGHTS FOR THE NEW CAFÉ
Not only was motivation flowing while coffee was consumed. All kinds of practical tips were coming forth from the Strawberry Fields leaders, and the folks from New Jersey were taking everything in.
Sue Sharkey asked for a seat with a view.
“She wanted to be in front of the cash register so she could see everybody at work,” McDermid says. “She was so excited to see how the staff know exactly what they’re supposed to do and they’re on it.”
As for Bradley, his business background and his heart for those with special needs gave him a special appreciation for the input from Pasquinelli and McDermid.
“They told us to avoid making things too complicated with all kinds of sandwiches and scones and T-shirts,” he says. “But they also told us to make sure we deliver quality in what we serve. The mission is all about the employees, and people are coming in to support them. But you don’t get any relief in terms of the quality of your product.”
Meanwhile, the State College folks were impressed by the creativity of their counterparts in dealing with one key challenge.
“The seasonal aspect of their area was so interesting to me,” says McDermid, a 14-year staff member with Strawberry Fields. “Their island has something like 300,000 people in the summer and 10,000 in the winter. How do you create a business model with such an extreme difference? We were impressed by their ingenuity in creating a pop-up market.”
Indeed, an unconventional space agreement is perfect for an enterprise which sells a product that is especially popular in the morning and which caters to a seasonal crowd. Rather than pay rent for an all-day, year-around facility, Compassion Café will be hosted this summer by Barry’s Do Me a Flavor (309 Centre Street, Beach Haven NJ), a restaurant which serves ice cream and informal meals during the afternoon and evening. Compassion Café will open in that facility on Monday and continue until Labor Day. The café’s hours will last from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. on Mondays through Thursdays.
MONDAY WILL BE SPECIAL
Monday’s Grand Opening of Compassion Café will be a memorable event. Beginning at 9:30 a.m., two café staff members will lead the crowd in saluting America’s flag. A soloist will sing “America the Beautiful,” a pastor will lead in prayer, and then the dynamic Sharkey duo, Sue and Erin, will offer their remarks. Finally Colleen Lambert, the mayor of Beach Haven, will share her thoughts before the cutting of a huge ribbon.
Will Erin be a little nervous? Not exactly.
“I think that it’ll be less about nerves and anxiety and more of the anticipation that everything is about to come to fruition,” she says. “And it’s not just about me, Aunt Sue and the board. It’s really about the kids and the families that we get to serve. Nothing like this has never existed in Ocean County, especially Long Beach Island, particularly because it’s such a small community in the off-season. It’s just so humbling that we were chosen, that God gave us this idea and it’s really going to give a lot of families hope.”