Trenton residents, businesses welcome city’s first Starbucks

The coffee giant selected Trenton as the ninth of 15 planned "opportunity cafes" — stores opened in underserved, low- to medium-income communities that train young workers.

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The new Starbucks on South Warren Street in Trenton is a big hit with state workers like Gemma Navarro.

The new Starbucks on South Warren Street in Trenton is a big hit with state workers like Gemma Navarro. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Trenton, New Jersey, was one of only four state capitals in the country not to have a Starbucks — until now.

The coffee retailer opened a location in the city’s downtown earlier this month as part of its Opportunity Cafe program.

The brand-new Starbucks — at the corner of Warren and Front streets — already has a steady stream of customers from the surrounding federal and municipal buildings.

Ilia Perez, who lives in nearby Hamilton Square, has worked in the area for 15 years and works for the state’s Department of Community Affairs.

A self-described Starbucks fanatic, she said she’s visited more than once a day since it opened.

“I’m waiting to get on a first-name basis with the barista so that when I walk in they can make my cappuccino,” she said, laughing.

Perez used to buy coffee from the deli in her building or walk to Dunkin’ Donuts.

“They’re definitely taking business away from other local coffee places, though. We’re seeing that already: Dunkin’ Donuts, the deli,” she said. “I’d rather walk down here than drink coffee over there.”

Another coffee enthusiast is Mitul Patel, who also works in state government.

“We had a couple of discussions, my co-workers and I, how like there’s no real major chains at least in this part of Trenton, aside from the Dunkin’ Donuts,” he said. “So it’s nice having another option for coffee in the area.”

Patel, who commutes an hour from Central Jersey, said he expects the new store will bring more economic development. But he pointed out that new restaurants and businesses were opening on the block before the Starbucks announcement.

“I feel safe coming here,” said Lisseth Weeks, who works in Family Court. “I don’t feel safe in certain parts of Trenton, but I’m glad they put it right here.”

The State Barber Shop is two doors down from the new coffee shop.

“Oh my God, I’m so excited about Starbucks. So excited,” said Joe Festa, barbershop owner.

A denizen of the block for 56 years, he offered his observations as he shaved a customer.

“I’ve seen six, seven people at a time walk by here that ordinarily wouldn’t come out of the building,” Festa said. “We need businesses that get these people out of their offices.”

The 82-year-old — nicknamed the “Mayor of Warren Street” — was a door-greeter at the official opening of Starbucks.

“Believe me when I tell you, their presence is going to help the little-business guy. Already I’ve made new customers on account of Starbucks,” he said.

But Festa cuts hair and isn’t selling coffee.

“Well, that’s true too, but again, competition, good competition, never hurt nobody,” he said.

‘Opportunity cafe’

Starbucks ended up in the city thanks to a congressional education tour that brought U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman to Starbucks’ headquarters in Seattle — where she learned of the company’s commitment to revitalize underserved urban communities.

Watson Coleman thought the Opportunity Cafe program would be a good fit for Trenton, which she represents as part of the 12th District.

The coffee retailer is serving as an economic engine for the county seat where state, municipal and federal government agencies and several nonprofits don’t contribute tax revenue, said Watson Coleman.

“The state of New Jersey, in the last eight years, has basically starved Trenton and not given it the kind of resources it needed based upon the impact, the burden of just being the state capital, has placed on this city,” the congresswoman said. “This is just a small city. It’s not that large.”

Trenton is the corporation’s ninth of 15 planned “opportunity cafes” — stores opened in underserved, low- to medium-income communities that train and hire 16- to 24-year-olds who face employment barriers.

“It’s taken young people, and it’s taken people who are currently unemployed, and it’s given them a job in an industry that is purposeful and useful in this economy,” Watson Coleman said.

Other sites include: Baltimore; Chicago; Phoenix; Miami; Seattle; Queens, New York; Ferguson, Missouri; and Long Beach, California.

Stephanie Campfield, store manager, has 20 employees and says 12 are from HomeFront, a local nonprofit that works to end homelessness and help families break the cycle of poverty.

Some employees were homeless just a month ago, said Campfield, who is looking forward to partnering with HomeFront and area businesses.

“We’re the only location here who’s really opened up on weekends, and a lot of the businesses are not,” the Paterson, New Jersey, native said. “So, they’re very excited that if we can spark up some sort of traffic here, that they’re even willing to open up and stay open with us on weekends.”

The Starbucks will also host community events — such as classes and poetry readings — to connect with the community and nearby businesses, Campfield said.

“They love it that we’re here, and they’re just really excited that we can bring some traffic and some business to — not only us — but for them as well,” she said. “They can see the light coming back to life.”

A tale of two Trentons

Trenton resident Abdul Wiswall is the proprietor of Trenton Coffee House and Vinyl in the South Ward neighborhood, about five minutes from downtown.

His family-run business started on his bike cart three years ago and is now a South Trenton storefront where he roasts specialty beans on-site.

“I’m not concerned too much with what happens downtown,” he said. “The Starbucks downtown is open during state worker hours. I get very few state workers that really want to come out this far.”

With a focus on providing a high-quality cup of coffee that people in the surrounding neighborhoods can afford, Wiswall said he isn’t worried about competing with Starbucks.

“I’m the last person to be concerned about Starbucks, because I sell coffee,” the shop owner said. “They’re selling something that I don’t want to sell. I don’t want to sell a brand. I don’t want to sell a myth.”

Wiswall’s internet-free shop is “all Trenton.” It uses locally grown produce and products that he picks up on his morning bike ride.

In the New Year, Starbucks will invest further in the community by  selling popcorn from Capital Corn & Confections, a city company.

Wiswall originally wanted a downtown location, but says his location has worked out — partly since his shop borders Chambersburg, the city’s most densely populated neighborhood.

“It’s really like the tale of two cities: That Trenton is not really this Trenton,” he said. “I wouldn’t have thought of it originally, but I’m happy to be here five blocks away. I feel this is Trenton too.”

As for other nearby coffee competitors, a Dunkin’ Donuts representative says the company hasn’t noticed a difference in its customer base. Workers at the locally owned franchise say they’ll have a better sense of whether customers have changed their habits after the holidays.

Next door to Starbucks is the East Front Street Cafe. Workers there said they had a slump before Starbucks opened — but now see more foot traffic and more people noticing the cafe.

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