Featured Story:A Fair Gamble

By Amy Pantea
@amytook
3 posts

A Fair Gamble

When Stephanie Vasquez left her job as a teacher to become a small-business owner, it was a gamble—but the trade is paying dividends near and far.

“I thought [teaching] was all I was going to do until I was an old grandma,” Stephanie Vasquez says. “But now I will never go back.”

Now, four years after saying goodbye to her career as a middle school teacher, Vasquez is teaching downtown Phoenix how to eat and drink conscientiously through her two downtown storefronts, the Fair Trade Cafe and Fair Trade Community Kitchen.

It was nine years ago when Vasquez stumbled on the opportunity to take ownership of a previously nonprofit coffee shop on Roosevelt and First Avenue, which was run and owned by a local church. She took the opportunity, and later planned to open up a second location at Civic Space Park.

While the second location was being built, Vasquez was also still working at Santa Maria Middle School 30 minutes away. Then the economic recession happened, causing Vasquez to make some major decisions.

“With a very heavy heart I left the classroom,” Vasquez said. “I decided I was going to shape these babies up in one year and then I would go back to the classroom. But I fell in love with my businesses all over again, and I have not been in a classroom for four years now.”

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And Vasquez wouldn’t trade it for anything, except for maybe her family.

For the mom of three children, and a guardian to another high-school girl, saying Vasquez has a busy schedule is an understatement.

“Family is ultimate to me,” said Vasquez, “although there is always going to be that tug-of-war. Most women face that, but you’re a mother first, of course.”

Even when Vasquez was having her third child, now a three-year-old boy, she was still dedicated to being present at her stores. At 43 weeks pregnant she had started labor early in the morning, but attended a distribution show she had signed up for months in advance, and even went into the shop to begin preparations for her time away.

“I was definitely in what is called active labor,” Vasquez said. “So I’m laboring in the office trying to handle business before I leave because I know I need some time off to have this baby… I physically needed to not be there, but I physically needed to be there.”

Just two days after giving birth, Vasquez returned to work, with her newborn baby boy in hand.

Life outside of the cafe for Vasquez really consists of being with and taking care of her children, said Hannah Lurie, an old employee and close friend of Vasquez’s.

“Her hobbies are really her children. She’s the big mama bear,” said Lurie.

Lurie, 24, was a Fair Trade Cafe employee for five years before recently moving to San Francisco. She regards her time working alongside Vasquez as a real growth experience.

“My whole personality and outlook on life has been shaped by my job,” said Lurie, who attempts to eat conscientiously after learning from Vasquez at the shops.

“She still teaches every day, in some way,” Lurie said.

Anything you do that’s right is going to take a little bit more. The easy way is not always the right way.

When Lurie and Vasquez began searching for local organic ingredients for the Fair Trade Community Kitchen’s new all-organic menu, it was a “whole conscientious crusade” to make it happen, said Vasquez.

She strives for better quality ingredients and fair trading practices, but it isn’t easy. The products tend to be harder to find and more costly, and she admits it’s more effort to find local produce, roasted beans, and everything else.

“Anything you do that’s right is going to take a little bit more. The easy way is not always the right way,” Vasquez said.

Vasquez isn’t one to give up and say no because she’s too committed, said Lurie.

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“She has this sense of pride in everything she does… She puts her heart and soul into everything she cares about,” Lurie said.

There are times when organic just isn’t available, but Vasquez strives for transparency and notifies her customers when certain ingredients can’t be restocked, via a small black chalkboard.

“Baking soda. This week baking soda [is something] I could not find organically,” said Vasquez with a laugh.

But her intentions are no laughing matter. Each week the blackboard changes, and is placed right next to the checkout. Vasquez said the idea stemmed from her own frustrations after eating at restaurants with vague “nearly-organic” and “almost gluten-free” menus.

Vasquez’s passion for conscientious eating and drinking didn’t stem from her parents, where she was raised in a traditional Mexican household and ate mostly lard, Vasquez jokes. She said her eating habits and mindfulness is more generational.

“This wasn’t something that came from my parents, it’s coming from our era, this era of awareness,” Vasquez said.

Of her three children, one is a vegetarian and another is on an all-vegan diet, although Vasquez said her parents don’t understand her family’s eating habits.

She was able to see the real me inside and hire me despite of that.

Family for Vasquez extends beyond into her two restaurants and the city.

“There are all these livelihoods, all these people working for me that I’m financially responsible for, and [for] their families. Fair Trade Cafe and Fair Trade Community Kitchen are a family. It’s also a resource in many different ways, for my employees to live and for the community,” Vasquez said.

For Aaron Eagles, working at Fair Trade felt like a family to him where “there was definitely a camaraderie.”

He was working as a barista for both locations until last August, and is now following Vasquez’s footsteps and pursuing his own dream of starting a small business of his own—in this case, a clothing business. Eagles is one of many who have been impacted by Vasquez.

“When I first started working for her I was going through so many things in my own life, it was such a changing period for me,” Eagles said. “I feel like she was able to see the real me inside and hire me despite that.”

Eagles may no longer work for Vasquez but he often goes to her asking for advice, especially about starting and running a business single-handedly. Vasquez is very generous with her time and resources, Eagles said.

Basically, Vasquez just cares about people.

Whether it is her coworkers, family, or customers, Vasquez listens. Francisco Flores, a regular of Fair Trade for seven years, can vouch for that.

“I always see her interacting very kindly and softly, whether it’s with her crew or with others.” Flores said, “That’s one of the things I appreciate about her—her attentiveness.”

Not only is Vasquez attentive, but she earnestly wants to know what she is doing wrong, and what she can do better.

“I wish I could sit and pick everyone’s brains—it’s the only way I can evolve and grow,” Vasquez said. “You don’t learn unless you’ve failed. The only way there’s a learning opportunity is when something’s not done accurately, and being able to receive that information.”

Vasquez is a “one-man show” when it comes to running her two shops, and had no experience running a business before changing life courses.

It has been nonetheless rewarding and Vasquez encourages those who want to own a business to do so.

To Vasquez, the greatest reward of starting a business is “letting go of the known and going into the unknown, and allowing that personal growth to happen… A lot of times as individuals we always second-guess things, we always look at the negatives, what could happen, what couldn’t happen.”

Her final advice?

“Just to do it.” Just do.

Photos by Amy Pantea

Amy Pantea

Amy is a journalism and public relations student at the Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU.

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