In May 2019, New Orleans East gained a business whose return its residents had collectively awaited for years — a neighborhood coffee shop. The call for this business was answered by New Orleans East residents Stephanie Chambliss and Elwood McCoy.
PJ’s Coffee offers a variety of coffees, teas and sweet treats in a calm setting with oversized comfortable sofas that beckon visitors to sit, sip and enjoy the smooth Jazz wafting through speakers. Other tables and seating provide a more hip alternative to reading or studying at the library.
The latest location in the franchise’s offerings, located in the former First NBC Bank building at 5733 Read Blvd., is the result of over two years of planning and negotiations by Chambliss and McCoy. After watching the location for several months, Chambliss sprang into action when it became available for lease, becoming the first person to respond.
As residents of New Orleans East, their vision included hiring youth from the area to staff the business. They partnered with the Urban League of Louisiana to hire nine of its 16 graduates, who were trained for job readiness with emphasis on soft skills such as how to dress, creating an appropriate email address, how to shake hands and how to interview for a job. The East New Orleans Regional Library provided space to conduct the job readiness and workforce development classes. On the day that I visited with Chambliss, she sipped on a drink prepared by the latest addition to her staff. “I have to try it (before it’s served to guests),” she said.
The idea for a coffee house appealed to Chambliss because as a Financial Advisor, she often met with clients at coffee houses, but unfortunately, public meeting areas in the East were limited. Now, her coffee shop is available for others to meet, and City Councilwoman Cyndi Nguyen who represents District E, where the new coffee shop is located, quickly announced that she would hold her Coffee and Conversation events there. Book clubs and other small groups have also expressed interest in meeting there.
Though Chambliss makes it all look easy, the trek to her success began over two years ago. Because the location is part of an historical district, she met often with the City Planning Commission and the Board of Zoning Adjustments to ensure the business would be in compliance with city codes. The PJ’s Franchise headquarters helped with laying out the floor plan, color scheme and marketing. Normally they would have provided assistance with obtaining a location but thanks to Chambliss’ groundwork, the location was locked up.
Chambliss credits their partnership with the Urban League with providing a cadre of workers prepped and ready for the training required by PJ’s. The partnership allowed Chambliss to get to know the program participants, which made the hiring process easier. The New Orleans East Hospital provided space to interview the candidates.
Chambliss and McCoy are proud of being able to support their community in more ways than one. “Relationships are important. About 80% of the staff lives in the East,” said Chambliss. “They even come in on their days off!” She hopes that the community will want to build their own relationships and noted fondly that a married couple stopped by for a date night and played cards. “People are responding well,” she says. “The (tv) news story really helped,” and she noted that because of the media coverage, people from outside the area have visited.
A drive through window is now operational so that patrons can pass by and easily pick up the flavorful concoctions on their way to work or whatever their next destination happens to be.
Chambliss relishes in the support she received along the way to the fulfillment of her dream, from City Council members, state representatives, school board representatives, family members and friends.
Born in Central City, one of three daughters, a product of public schools, and the daughter of working class parents with high school educations, Chambliss recognizes the role her family played in her success, from her grandmother to her aunts.
She offers advice to those who might consider walking in her shoes: “This didn’t happen fast. Credit and finances are important. You must be bankable. You must lay the foundation.
“We need more businesses, more entertainment. We used to have a skating rink and a bowling alley. We must support our businesses.”
As she reflected on what she has accomplished she added, “I realized I could be anybody. I didn’t let the odds define me.”