Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese: Serving in Oregon’s living room

Feature Firefly Coffeehouse Dcsba Panel

Now that public orders are being relaxed, one Dane County Small Business Award winner, Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese in downtown Oregon, appears to have emerged from the challenging pandemic period better than an eatery has a right to.

In 2021, it’s on track to break all previous sales records. Its 10 full-time and 10 part-time employees are working harder than they ever have before and, as a result, co-owners Jeanne and Uriah Carpenter, who have only owned the business for four years, are sharing their success through new quarterly bonuses and surprise paid holidays.

Dane County Small Business Award nominations are evaluated based on three categories — growth, benefits, and community impact — and the coffeehouse’s momentum continued after the shutdown period of 2020. Jeanne Carpenter attributes that in part to an ever-adapting business model that has changed to offer online ordering, no-contact pickup, safe takeout, and exceptionally safe indoor and outdoor seating.

“This award means the world to us, especially following a year that started with such emotional and economic despair, and then gradually transitioned into a success story where our team adapted to a completely altered workflow without ever missing a beat,” Carpenter says. “What a roller coaster ride. This award is truly a testament to our team’s determination and ability to change.”

Place to gather

Firefly Coffeehouse & Artisan Cheese is a community gathering spot that is affectionately known as “Oregon’s Living Room.” Known for its espresso and from-scratch cooking, the coffeehouse is an eclectic, art-filled space that pays living wages and believes those who work in the service industry should be treated as professionals. Its full-time employees make between $37,000–$48,000 a year.

During the initial stay-at-home order that closed restaurants entirely in March, April, and May 2020, Firefly suffered a 35% drop in sales compared to the previous year, causing management to adjust its operating hours and expenses to become cash-flow neutral. A Paycheck Protection Program loan helped to pick up the slack in sales to ensure all employees and vendors were paid on time, and by the end of 2020, its sales decrease was only 4% versus 2019 and it finished both years with just over $1 million in sales.

So far in 2021, it has seen weekly sales grow 30% over 2019, the last full year of uninterrupted operation. There obviously has been some pent-up demand for a quality dining experience, but how many of Firefly’s pandemic-related services will remain for the long-term? All of them, Carpenter says. Online ordering, which alone makes up nearly 40% of Firefly’s orders and is the main driver of its growth in sales over the past 12 months, and no-contact pickup are here to stay because customers demand it.

“The past year has also been an excellent opportunity for us to hone and perfect the safety of our customer experience, and we are committed to a spaced-out seating plan and sanitation schedule,” Carpenter adds.

Pitching bennies

Regarding Firefly’s benefits package, one thing that stood out to judges was the monthly living allowance of $150 to full-timers ($1,950 per year) who choose to relocate to Oregon, the rationale for which is the high rents in Dane County. For eight years, Carpenter served as a trustee on the Oregon Village Board, and for the past two years served as village president. Building affordable housing was her No. 1 priority as an elected official because she could see what a tremendous benefit it was to having employees live where they work.

Moreover, the Carpenters would like their employees to have what they had. “Uriah and I came up with the living allowance program because we’ve lived in Oregon 25 years,” she explains. “Our daughter went to school (K–12) here. We wanted our full-time employees to have the chance to put down roots like we have, send their kids to a good school, and enjoy a stable, well-paying career with full benefits. That’s the American dream, and everyone deserves a chance to live it.”

Their treatment of baristas as full-time professionals who deserve a living wage and full benefits also speaks to their commitment to workers. Many consumers probably view the barista gig as something young people do to pay for school or get that first work experience, much like a fast-food job, but that’s not how the Carpenters view it, and they compensate their baristas accordingly.

The Carpenters view this compensation as a key to their low staff turnover — nearly 0% among full-time employees — but it’s not the only key factor. They practice open book finance, so every employee sees income and expenses, and they realize the harder everyone works, the bigger their year-end, profit-sharing check will be. According to Jeanne, when you involve your employees from the ground up, make sure they have a say in the business, and their input is truly valued, it’s amazing what kind of business you can build.

“Before we purchased the Firefly in 2017, we had been loyal customers for 10 years,” she notes. “A few of the baristas back then were long-timers and we enjoyed getting to know them and feeling like we were part of their Firefly family. We wanted to continue that tradition and build on it.”

Two weeks after purchasing the business, Jeanne says they “upped” every full-time person to a living wage. “And do you know what happened? They all quit their second jobs. They started to actually get eight hours of sleep. They came to work well-rested and in a great mood. We continued to build on that success and today we provide full benefits, including paid vacation and health insurance. We have some of the most loyal employees in the industry because we treat them like the professionals they are.”

Small Business Award judges appreciated the bounce-back story of a business in the service industry, and they are familiar with Firefly’s status as an important business in downtown Oregon, but its workforce policies are what really got their attention. “I’m very impressed with the way they treat their employees,” states one judge.

Love me some library

Among the coffeehouse’s community impacts was fundraising for a new public library in Oregon. In 2020, just prior to the pandemic shutdown, it hosted a “Love Your Library” event on Valentine’s Day to kick off a community library fundraising campaign to build a new $12 million library. Firefly pledged to donate 50% of all day’s sales ($6,000) to the Oregon Library Campaign, and its barista team donated all their cash tips (over $1,200) to the cause. The baristas’ generosity spurred Oregon Community Bank to match Firefly’s entire donation, and the event launched a successful fundraising campaign. A new, fully funded library will break ground this year.

Carpenter attributes part of the success of that fundraising idea to the fact that Firefly incentivized its employees to live in Oregon through the rent assistance program, helping to give them a real stake in the community and services like a new library. “I am a firm believer that everybody wants to be part of something bigger than themselves,” she states. “Because so many of our employees have worked for us so long, Oregon has literally become their hometown. They naturally want their hometown to be the best, and when they see the commitment of the owners to bettering their hometown, they naturally step up.”

The tragic events of past year, most notably the police-involved death of George Floyd, compelled the coffeehouse to get behind an additional cause — the Stand Up and Lean In event at Triangle Park, which is right outside the Firefly’s back door. More than 500 people attended the event, and the coffeehouse closed for the morning so that all of its employees could attend. It also made $500 in cash donations to Dane County organizations working for racial equity.

According to Carpenter, it was an easy decision to get behind the Stand Up and Lean In event because so many employees are dedicated to bettering the world. And because of their close relationship with customers, the community knew that “it was only natural that we would close our business during that event so that every employee could attend,” she says. “It happened naturally and organically without us even really thinking about how odd it might seem to the business community to close your coffee shop when 500-plus people are literally gathered outside your back door. It was the right thing to do, and our employees led the charge.”

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