Evanston, Ill.—It’s a mild Thursday evening in October, and the Ben & Jerry’s shop two blocks from Northwestern University enjoys a steady flow of foot traffic. The three teens behind the counter keep the scoopers moving and blenders whirring through the Chunky Monkey and Phish Food, greeting customers with, “Would you like bottled water with that?” and sending them along with a cheery, “You guys have a nice day, now.”
It might seem like a typical Ben & Jerry’s, but this downtown shop is run by a nonprofit youth-serving agency whose goal is youth development, not making money.
Run by the Youth Job Center of Evanston, this shop is one of 15 Ben & Jerry’s around the country, known as PartnerShops, that test the South Burlington, Vt.- based company’s vaunted social conscience. The franchises are owned and operated by nonprofits, several of which are youth-oriented, that focus on job training.
“We’re looking for organizations that have a focus and a commitment to youth ages 15 to 21,” says Leslie Halperin, PartnerShop program manager. “We’re looking for organizations that have reached a point in their development where they have achieved a level of expertise and know-how in their core mission.”
The PartnerShop program is composed of 10 agencies (some operate more than one store), with eight others planning to open franchises. Ben & Jerry’s chooses partner agencies that have been in operation at least five years and have budgets of at least $500,000. The corporation donates the standard $30,000 franchise fee and waives royalty fees, while providing ongoing training to the “enterprise directors” who serve as point persons at the various locations.
“The goal primarily was to provide great training for our kids, who often need more nurturing and more help to become successful than most stores offer,” says Ann Jennett, board member of the youth job center, which provides job-readiness and placement services for at-risk youth. “And, hopefully, to make some money – but we know that’s the real challenge.”
The program was also a logical fit for the Washington-based Latin American Youth Center, which purchased a Ben & Jerry’s franchise on Capitol Hill last year, says Enterprise Director Jennifer Shewmake.
“We were already doing work skills and employment training programs,” says Shewmake, whose agency provides job training, social services, leadership development and other services to more than 5,000 people a year. “This gave us a unique opportunity to implement a job training program in a supportive environment.”
The typical store trains between 20 and 40 youths a year. Most stay six months to a year before moving on, although some remain as supervisors. Most have worked sporadically, if ever. They scoop ice cream from 10 to 30 hours per week (depending on whether they’re in school) for $6 to $7 an hour. There are no benefits, such as health insurance.
Before the Evanston store opened in March, the youth job center staff pared down a list of “about a zillion” applications and undertook a two-step interview process, says Enterprise Director Tara Krigbaum. First, job center staff considered who would benefit the most. Then in-store personnel conducted more typical job interviews.
“We make our selections based on who’s going a gain a lot from it, plus who’s going to help support the program,” Krigbaum says. The store trained nine people during its first six months, two of whom remain. Seven new trainees began in August.
The right mix of youths is critical, says Megan McJennett, youth training manager at the Latin American Youth Center. “You don’t want to have 100 percent at risk, for business reasons,” she says. “You’d just be pulling your hair out.”
Those hired undergo initial training and receive ongoing pointers on everything from how to measure portions correctly to standard work skills, such as dressing appropriately, showing up on time, smiling at customers and taking initiative.
“There’s constant coaching,” says McJennett, whose Washington shop has trained 60 youths in two years. “If they’re over-scooping, it means a loss of profits for us, so I’ll pull them aside and work with them. If they come late, they can see how their co-workers react when they have to stay late and cover for them. There are lots of teachable moments.”
Youth say they learn to deal constructively with the public. “People come in and might have an attitude,” says Maurice Murray, 19, who has worked at the Evanston Ben & Jerry’s since August. “They teach you that the best way is to stay nice and treat [surly customers] like a friend or a household guest.”
Such “teachable moments” may benefit the youth, but to get there the organizations must confront myriad challenges. Boards must be convinced the idea fits with their agencies’ missions, staffing must be robust, and agencies must be ready to give trainees more leeway than a for-profit business probably would.
The Evanston store took nine years to open, because the job center’s board initially voted it down, Jennett says. But when Ben & Jerry’s approached the agency a few years later, its budget was larger and downtown Evanston had been significantly redeveloped, leading to the promise of greater foot traffic.
“That’s a difficult path to walk between meeting your financial goals and your social mission goals, when it’s actually the board of directors that owns this outfit,” she says.
Staff costs make that path more challenging, says Krigbaum in Evanston. “Our labor is high because we have everything scheduled so that, ideally, we have time to talk with each of the people in the program, just to do a check-in on how they are, and what challenges they might have,” she says.
Another challenge for agencies is purposefully not hiring only those who are best qualified, says Jennett at the youth jobs center. “It’s tempting to take all the bright, personable, cute kids, because that’s good for business,” she says. “But that’s not our mission.”
It also doesn’t further agencies’ missions to rapidly discipline those who come late or exhibit poor work habits, such as being curt with customers. “Not to say that we’re more lenient,” says McJennett of the Latin American Youth Center, “but some of our kids might have been fired on the first day if they had been in a normal work environment.”
Henry Lewis, store manager at the Capitol Hill shop, has been there since before the youth center purchased it. “They’re definitely kind of lenient, because some kids do have issues you have to be sensitive to,” he says. “We don’t want to turn any kids away. We want to find a solution to their problems.”
The Evanston store has, however, fired “a couple of people,” says Alex Gagnon, 18, a high school senior who was promoted to lead staffer on his shift after about three months on the job. “I loved working with them,” he says. “But you’ve got to learn that that’s part of business.”
Shewmake says the Washington store has fired “four or five” people. “We’re still committed to them as a youth center, but they will no longer be able to be employed by us,” she says.
“We have to do that juggling act of being a supportive job-training program and a business,” McJennett says of the Washington shop. “It’s a difficult thing to balance that double bottom line.”
Profits are modest, at best. The Evanston shop projects a $25,000 to $30,000 loss in 2003, Krigbaum says. The Washington shop lost $10,000 in 2002, Shewmake says. New York-based Common Ground, which owns shops in Times Square and at Rockefeller Center, earned a total of $10,000 in 2002, says Enterprise Director Nancy Young.
The first international PartnerShop is slated to open in Chester, England, this month.
Agencies should weigh the tradeoffs carefully when considering a program like PartnerShop, says C.J. Meenan, director of the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship. “If you can combine real-world experience with teaching opportunities, to us, there are huge benefits,” he says. “If you can get a business or a franchise to partner with you, that’s a plus. Ben & Jerry’s, with their community focus, is perfect for this.”
PartnerShop Program Manager
Ben & Jerry’s
30 Community Drive
South Burlington, VT 05403
Latin American Youth Center
1419 Columbia Road NW
Washington, DC 20009
Youth Job Center of Evanston
1114 Church St.
Evanston, IL 60201
Latin American Youth Center
Youth Job Center of Evanston
Chicago Children’s Choir
Lawson House YMCA
Postgraduate Center for Mental Health