February 5, 2009


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High Point serves more than just a cup of joe

Manager Theresa McCaffery and owner Meg Hagele have brought the High Point Café to Allens Lane Station. (Photo by Erin Vertreace)

There are so many clichés when it comes to describing a coffee shop. Whether it’s the perks of working behind the “bar,” serving shots of espresso to sleepy caffeine deprived customers or greeting throngs of eager patrons, the images associated with the modern day café are plentiful.

At the High Point Café’s two locations in W. Mt. Airy, the clichés have given way to an honest and earnest community-driven enterprise that is reaping its own rewards for its owners, employees and customers.

For four years, Meg Hagele has worked to create a café that is more than a place to fuel up. Regular Todd Bernstein, who grew up in Mt. Airy on Wissahickon Avenue and has made it his home as an adult for six years, the café brought back an energy that was a big part of his childhood.

“I remember the area (by Greene Street and Carpenter Lane) was a pretty vibrant district,” he said. “One of my favorite things was going to the tailor with my mom. Mrs. Pack used to give me a penny when she saw me.”

Bernstein begins each day with a 7 a.m. visit to the café at Green and Carpenter lanes. He has a “spot” where he takes his cup of coffee and a scone or piece of coffee cake and starts his day chatting with the staff, other regulars and neighbors.

“The High Point has rejuvenated this area and created a central point for this sense of community,” Bernstein said.

One the main reasons the High Point Café is successful, said Jason Henschen, who has worked there for more than two years, is Hagele’s devotion to community, both the one she has created among the café staff and the larger community of the neighborhood.

Her philosophy is simple: to redefine what success means and to achieve it on her own terms. Henschen points out the company’s health plan. More than a policy, the café’s workers are offered full health and dental benefits for full time employment (30 hours a week) after six months. Part-time employees are offered the same health plan but at 50 percent. After that each employee is offered $50 a visit for up to eight visits a year to alternative medicine practioners.

“I have a responsibility to them (the staff) as much as they do to me,” said Hagele of her philosophy. “I want to create an atmosphere that is mutually fulfilling.”

For years, Hagele would attend professional seminars for small business owners through institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania. She found the advice centered around national corporations such as McDonald’s.

“I don’t have huge profits,” she said. “I’m not buying a new car or going to the Bahamas for vacations.”

Hagele said she discovered that her definition of success was vastly different than that of someone with a stamp of approval background.

“What is success to me is not necessarily what is success to someone with an MBA from Penn,” she said. “For me it’s a priority to do what is right. I make a living. I’m able to pay my mortgage.”

As one her oldest employees, Theresa McCaffery, manager of the Allens Lane café, put it, “This position claimed me.”

McCaffery started with Hagele on a part-time basis in 2006. Originally from Wilmington, she moved to Germantown five years ago. She began working at the café to supplement her income as a full-time office manager at a local nonprofit. Gradually she increased her hours at the café.

“Meg is very selfless,” McCaffery said. “She puts employees, the café, the community first.”

“I wanted to work at the café full time because its fun,” McCaffery said. “I’ve never worked in such a social environment where the line between server and customer is not really defined. It’s one of the best work environments I’ve ever worked in.”

McCaffery said it is more than just good business that encourages the friendly atmosphere.

“People come here the same way as they might go to their corner bar,” she said. “It’s like the ‘Cheers’ of coffee shops.”

There are approximately 18 staff members who work between two locations — the original café near Weaver’s Way Co-op and the recently opened High Point at the Allens Lane train station. Henschen said one of the most rewarding aspects of working at the café is watching Hagele bring out the best in each person.

“Meg allows us to be our own people behind the counter,” he said. “She encourages each employee to expand within the café according to his or her talents or desires.”

Hagele began her career in coffee as a barrista in Seattle, Wash. She was what so many of her barristas are: an artist-cum-coffee slinger. She made leather handbags and started an artist workshop.

“The café was were I made my living but it also allowed me to have time to do other projects,” she said.

It is a value she has preserved for her staff. When Henschen combined his passion for hiking with his conviction about fighting hunger last year, he set off to hike the Pacific Coast Trail to raise money for the Coalition Against Hunger. Hagele created a program to allow café customers to support Henschen through their patronage of the shop.

More importantly, Henschen said it was the connections and relationships he made at the café that provided most of the support he has received and has accounted for 85 percent of the money he has raised.

“The café is my life, not theirs,” said Hagele of how she views the relationship between boss and employee. “Jason’s hike was an amazing opportunity, and if he were working at a different job he might not have been able to do it.”

On Inauguration Day, Hagele chartered a bus for her staff. Each seat was a $50, and because she kept the cafés open that day, she paid the employees who stayed behind doubletime to cover while everyone went to Washington.

“It was only fair,” she said.