Tall Rabbit Cafe provides life-changing opportunities and a sense of community

A local coffee shop can be many things to the surrounding community. It can act as a conference room or a meeting space for business. It can be a barista’s first job. It can be the stage for a poetry slam or a musician. It can be the first place where you feel ‘at home’ in a new town once you reach ‘regular’ status as a frequent customer. For Blue Jacket Academy graduates and the Fort Wayne community, Tall Rabbit Cafe + Community is changing lives one coffee at a time. 

Named after Chief Blue Jacket a.k.a. ‘Tall Rabbit,’ the new coffee shop opened in January 2023. Tall Rabbit Cafe + Community, located at 2001 Calhoun Street, is the fourth social enterprise of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Blue Jacket, Inc. With a vision to provide vocational training and opportunities to anyone who is experiencing barriers to employment, Blue Jacket, Inc. has been around since 2005. 

Tony Hudson, director of Blue Jacket, Inc., says the coffee shop and the nonprofits’ other entities help give people chances at gainful employment through their training programs. 

Rachel Von Art LLCTony Hudson, director of Blue Jacket, Inc.“We allow them to earn their chance at proving their worth to employers through a two-week training, and we also do that through the ability to hire them in-house at any one of our six social enterprises,” he says. 

Hudson says the barriers folks are experiencing are wide-ranging and can include being out of the workforce for years, having a criminal background, lacking transportation or safe housing, being in recovery, dealing with mental health circumstances, or cognitive or physical disabilities. 

Through the Blue Jacket, Inc. Academy training program, participants go through a two-week training and learn how to get and keep employment. The intense training is set up like a simulated workspace, and clients are expected to be on time, in appropriate clothing, and with completed assignments each day.

Rachel Von Art LLCAn espresso at Tall Rabbit, 2001 Calhoun St. Fort Wayne, IN.“We’ve helped close to 4,000 people who have gone through the process,” Hudson says. “That pre-employment training not only helps develop confidence and soft skills, but it also is a screening tool for them intrinsically and for employers who partner with us.”

Hudson has noticed many more individuals who are coming to the organization with higher needs, prompting the nonprofit to offer even more resources, tutors, and assistance to help.

“We made the decision to focus heavily on in-house employment for our clients, so they can work transitionally, under the umbrella and guise of Blue Jacket Inc., with the safety and support of my staff being able to develop those on-the-job skills,” he says. 

Those skills are then refined in the businesses, including Tall Rabbit Cafe, Blue Jacket Clothing Co., Blue Jacket Staffing, Cleaning Services, Renew by Blue Jacket, and other enterprises. Hudson says the enterprises grew out of unmet need, whether it was a demand for deep cleaning and sanitizing during the pandemic, providing free business professional clothing, or excellent customer service in the food industry. 

“Every enterprise is thoroughly vetted by the board and staff leadership first, evaluating how many valuable transitional jobs it would provide to our clients,” he says. 

Rachel Von Art LLCCafe Manager Megan Spring makes a "Special Cappuccino Drink" at Tall Rabbit.Adults 18+ are invited to apply to the Academy, which costs only $10 and can be waived if applicants are unable to cover that fee. Although the program was modeled after similar social enterprises in Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and Philadelphia, Hudson says at the time of inception, it was a unique offering in Fort Wayne. Today, the new coffee shop remains unique in its focus on providing personalized customer service, which can be lacking at competitors. 

“The differentiation for us at the coffee shop is that we work really hard at providing great customer service,” he says. “We develop our baristas with a welcoming, consultative perspective in coffee from someone who is a coffee snob, to someone who’s never had a gourmet coffee in their hand ever before.”

Rachel Von Art LLCA table at Tall Rabbit Cafe + Community, 2001 Calhoun St. Fort Wayne, IN.
In fact, Hudson considers the coffee shop as the total opposite of national chains like Starbucks. The remodeled space feels eclectic and rustic, but cozy and inviting. There’s a free little art gallery inviting visitors to drop art off or take a creation to go. The space includes a conference room for rentals and a side room with additional seating for events. On a weekly basis, the space hosts different events including baby showers, graduation ceremonies, high fashion events, and more. Popular menu items include cappuccinos, espressos, seasonal drinks, refreshers, and lemonades. 

“No one ever wants to leave, so we fight with the antithesis of the Starbucks model of turning tables and making sure people are moving tables relatively quickly,” Hudson says. “We have created a space that is building community every day.”

Initially, Blue Jacket, Inc. was interested in putting a cafe in their office building on South Calhoun, but in order to avoid over-promising and under-delivering, looked into smaller footprint options than a massive buildout. They found a partner in Utopian Coffee, who already had the additional space from their roastery building. Hudson says their missions align, and the partnership just made sense considering Utopian has hired from their staffing wing, plus they have incredible coffee beans too. 

Rachel Von Art LLCPastries baked by Gratitude Catering at Tall Rabbit.Tall Rabbit Cafe + Community offers folks a judgment-free zone, and a welcoming ‘sit down and stay a while’ attitude.

“People will stay for three or four hours and buy one coffee. That doesn’t help us,” Hudson laughs, “but it doesn’t hurt us either because they fall in love with who we are. It allows us to be able to open the doors to our mission. They get to learn and see what’s going on in our barista’s lives.”

For coffee shop assistant manager, Amber, her life was especially impacted by Tall Rabbit Cafe + Community. 

Rachel Von Art LLCDebby Beckman, left, and Anna Ross have their Audiences Unlimited monthly meeting at Tall Rabbit.“Amber is going through many life changes,” Hudson says. “Patrons have asked for permission to help her get furniture and items for her new home she’s moving into. I just think it’s a beautiful snapshot of what kind of culture we’ve created at Tall Rabbit. Our baristas know most of our patrons by name, and vice versa. It makes it hard for us to not feel like family then.”

Just as family looks out for one another, so too does the program look after its clients, even after graduation. By offering career development specialists, tools, resources, and investing support, they help graduates level up their careers. Blue Jacket, Inc. shows a real commitment to student success. Some students are even offered a job before graduating the two-week training. They help provide individual action plans, job coaching, and mentors for those on the spectrum or who have varying cognitive abilities. Even after finishing, they check-in with clients in 30, 60, and 90-day follow-ups, as well as six and 12-month check-ups to help with accountability. 

“Blue Jacket helps with confidence and skills,” Hudson says. “Our goal is to be able to help people spring their wings in a career that brings them joy. That’s the core of it. Whether it’s a week after graduation or five years from now, our goal is to make sure that we’re there to provide that opportunity for them.”

In turn, the support the coffee shop has received from the community has been surprising to Hudson. Not only is it a place to meet and ‘be seen’ in the morning, but it’s also the location for creative outlets at night like poetry slams, open mic nights, and other regular gatherings. 

“It’s dynamic and kinetic,” he says. “It’s a really powerful place that we never imagined would develop a sense of community on the south side of Fort Wayne, on this historic street of Calhoun.”

Rachel Von Art LLCThe exterior of Blue Jacket, 2826 Calhoun St. Fort Wayne, IN.Currently, Blue Jacket, Inc. has about 75 people on the payroll, about 50 of whom are graduates of the academy. In the next 10 years, Hudson hopes to increase that amount.

“We’re at about 60 percent of our leadership is run by Blue Jacket clients themselves,” he says, “that’s someone who pulled themselves from the margins and said, ‘I’m not only going to make a career at Blue Jacket for the time being, but I’m also going to continue to move forward.’ Our goal is to make an incredible leadership initiative.”
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Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

Sarah Spohn is a Michigan native, but every day finds a new interesting person, place, or thing in towns all over the Midwest. She received her degrees in journalism and professional communications and provides coverage for various publications locally, regionally, and nationally — writing stories on small businesses, arts and culture, nonprofits, and community.