The community bank where people come together

Barista Rachel Ahrens (right) serves coffee and treats to customers, Community State Bank staff included, at Shepherds Community Cafe.

Community State Bank is a gathering place for its small Wisconsin town in part because its main office doubles as a cafe staffed by students of a local college. The partnership supports the group of student-employees, local coffee lovers and the community bank.

By William Atkinson

Shepherds Community Cafe is a partnership between $395 million-asset Community State Bank in Union Grove, Wis., and the nearby Shepherds College. The cafe serves a delicious cup of coffee while also providing training, work experience and volunteer opportunities for students and alumni with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In 2017, Scott Huedepohl, the community bank’s president, CEO and coffee enthusiast, came up with the idea of having a cafe located within Community State Bank’s main office. It would be a place not only for bank employees to meet, but also for locals to gather, network and, of course, enjoy a good cup of coffee.

His reasons for creating the cafe? “I love bringing people and communities together,” Huedepohl says. “We were in the process of upgrading the bank, so the timing was right. In addition, we are in a community that doesn’t have another coffee shop, so this was the perfect setting.”

As Huedepohl continued to consider the idea, he began to envision a wider purpose for the cafe. With this in mind, he approached Tracy Terrill, the president of Shepherds College, which is located just down the street from the community bank.

Shepherds College, a post-secondary school for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, has three different primary accredited programs, one of which is culinary arts, which Huedepohl felt would fit well with the bank’s cafe concept. “I met with Tracy to see if there would be any interest in collaborating on the cafe idea,” he says. “He thought it was a great idea and that it would also help the college with its mission.”

Huedepohl didn’t want the cafe to cost the college anything, so the bank provided the space for free. The college would then operate and staff it. The shop serves coffee drinks, hot chocolate, teas and smoothies throughout the week and on Saturday mornings. In addition to cafe seating, the bank offers two meeting rooms for local businesses and organizations to use free of charge.

The culinary arts certificate is a three-year program, and the college arranges for second-year and third-year students to rotate various shifts in the shop.

A Community State Bank branch serves as the home of Shepherds Community Cafe.

One of the graduates of the culinary arts program who is now involved with the cafe is Rachel Ahrens, a Shepherds Community Cafe barista. “We call Rachel the ‘rock star,’” Huedepohl says. “Every time she walks in, the whole lobby lights up.”

“I graduated from Shepherds College in June 2018 with a certificate of completion and began working at the cafe when it opened in July 2018,” Ahrens says. “I am really a people person, so I have loved every minute of it.”

Ahrens appreciates the support she has received through the partnership. “The bank has really been good to me,” she says. “When [a local TV station] came in to interview me, I was really nervous, but everyone really helped to calm me down.”

With its limited hours and the fact that Union Grove is a small community, all proceeds go directly toward Shepherds College. Proceeds from sales, including the direct trade coffee, baked goods and branded merchandise support students in the culinary program.

“The purpose is to provide a place for our people and other members of the community to relax and have a cup of coffee,” Huedepohl says. “It is also here to provide an opportunity for these young adults from Shepherds College to practice their trade.”

There are benefits for the bank, however. “For example, we use the cafe a lot ourselves,” he says. “In fact, we are our No. 1 customer. And, in a way, it also provides us with a competitive advantage. We are a small bedroom community of about 5,000 people, and it has sometimes been difficult for people to envision themselves here. Having the cafe helps from a recruiting and retention standpoint.”

And the cafe is also a place for local residents to meet. “We are also seeing more and more community members reserving the meeting rooms,” he says. “We didn’t really have anything like this in town before, a place where people can meet, have a cup of coffee and hold meetings.”

The greatest benefit for Huedepohl has been to see the growth of the students and graduates. “This is what I really love,” he says. “In fact, I have since become a board member of Shepherds College.”

Others have taken note of the concept. In fact, Community State Bank received an honorable mention in ICBA’s 2018 National Community Bank Service Awards. Of course, one of the biggest impacts of Shepherds Community Cafe is close to home.

“There are now several graduates who are employed, living independently and still are coming back to volunteer their time at the cafe,” Huedepohl says. “We believe the impact with the students has been a rewarding one. It has also had a major impact on all of us here at Community State Bank.”

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.