When customers walk into the Blue State coffee shop at 84 Wall St., they are confronted by a quote, emblazoned on an American flag-colored wall opposite the barista stand: “Our mission is to create vibrant cafes that reflect, improve, and inspire our communities.”
Ever since Blue State first entered the New Haven market in January 2009 — with its Wall Street location followed by another on York Street and a third near the medical school — the coffee shop chain’s co-founder, Drew Ruben ’11, has pledged a percentage of all sales to local nonprofit organizations chosen by customers. Every six months, each store displays four tall jars, each representing one local nonprofit, into which customers can drop wooden chips to indicate their support.
To select the four participating organizations, customers can submit the names of potential nonprofits to a suggestion jar. The particular store’s manager collaborates with Blue State CEO Carolyn Greenspan to select the four charities, which she chooses based both on customer popularity and the charity’s potential to succeed.
“We tend to steer away from national nonprofits and focus more on local places,” said Nathan Hann, Blue State’s general manager of New Haven stores. “If it’s a new and up-and-coming nonprofit, we like to give support to those as well.”
Since the first store opened on Thayer Street in Providence, R.I. in July 2007, Blue State has donated over $400,000 to more than 150 nonprofit organizations. Hann said the idea behind the donation system is what started Blue State Coffee as a whole — and remains what sets it apart from many businesses in the Elm City.
“The story that we have running within the company is that the co-founder was standing in line with his father and said ‘Wouldn’t it be great if profits from all these lattes could be channeled into great causes in the community?’” Hann said. “Now, every new store that we open up, we immediately start looking for nonprofits in the area.”
The leaders of six participating community organizations in New Haven interviewed unanimously gave positive reviews of the donation system Blue State has developed. Once these organizations receive the funding, they are free to use it however they like.
Blue State also brings back certain organizations if New Haven residents continue to suggest a certain nonprofit in the area.
Music Haven Development Director Netta Hadari, whose organization is participating in the donation system at the Wall Street location, said that the after-school arts program received $2000 in funding from Blue State during their last experience in 2012. In 2010, Music Haven received $5700, during a time when Blue State donated 5 percent of total sales.
“Part of the strength of the program is that it goes to general operating support — not to any specific program,” Hadari said. “Yes, it’s a popularity contest, but it’s marketing and publicity — it’s worth while for that kind of clientele, which is mainly the Yale community, to know what’s going on and be exposed to nonprofits around New Haven.”
Hadari noted that most of the funding goes toward the after school lessons program, where 75 kids from underserved New Haven neighborhoods learn to play musical instruments.
Similarly, All Our Kin, where Jessica Sager serves as co-founder and executive director, has appreciated the unrestricted donation style. Through Blue State’s fund, All Our Kin has been able to provide more staff time and give their consultants the budgets to bring in education supplies.
“Nonprofits are perpetually strapped for resources and cash, and a lot of funding we get comes from grants that are tremendously useful but earmarked for specific programs,” Sager said. “To get those dollars with discretion where they are needed most is wonderful and enables us to do a lot more for the citizens of New Haven and, in our case, the very youngest citizens.”
While representatives from these organizations have appreciated Blue State’s donations, Yalies interviewed did not seem to put significant effort into considering the choices. Several students interviewed said that baristas rarely prompt them to participate in the voting system as they pay.
As of now, Hann said Blue State’s management is not considering pursuing further projects to spur community organizations, but did note it was “something we are always thinking about.”
Aside from its three locations in New Haven, Blue State has two other stores in Providence, R.I. and another in Boston.