Finance in Focus: How Giving Back Brought in More Business for Harper’s Café

Editor’s Note: the following guest column ,”Finance in Focus,” was first featured in the Square Banking newsletter. The author, Aja Evans, is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who specializes in Financial Therapy. She owns and operates a private practice in New York City.

Now more than ever, consumers want to support businesses that stand for something. They’re more intentional where they spend their money, seeking out businesses whose values align with their own. Businesses are not only being asked to highlight their product or service, but to show what they believe in.

But what happens when you’re a small business owner putting your values up front? It takes financial vulnerability — your livelihood is on the line. But it can also bring in opportunities, like unexpected collaborations and positive responses from new and regular customers alike.

Harper’s Café is a cozy coffee shop in West Orange, New Jersey, where locals gather to enjoy inventive in-house roasted coffee and food in a laid-back, welcoming environment. I talked to the owner, Garan Dickson, about his innate values and showing up for his community. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

Tell us how Harper’s came to be.

I grew up in South Orange. I noticed storefronts were vacant for 10 years in West Orange. I wanted an environment where people could come and network, not just grab and go. After months of research, Harper’s — named after my daughter — opened in October 2019.

You’ve nailed the vibe! How has the response been since opening?

From day one it’s been overwhelmingly amazing. March [2020] started to pick up and then COVID happened. There would be weeks where I did $10. I can’t really gauge because sometimes I was taking cash or Venmo, but it really slowed down. You could walk or drive by and see me with my feet up on the table watching Netflix.

When the world shut down, I said, ‘If any student is relying on a school lunch, I would provide lunch.’ I come from a single-parent household, so I knew what it was like to rely on school lunch.

I ended up getting funding from Moore Love [a local nonprofit]. After a couple of weeks it morphed into free lunches for seniors. We bagged lunches every day — 50 to 75 a day, 250 to 300 a week. We ended up doing a total of 5,000 lunches.

People still come in because they heard what we did during that time.

It sounds like it’s important for you to be a part of the community, but contributing to the community, too. What were the financial or emotional impacts of putting your values first?

I did fund it initially. I set a budget per week — it was what I could do to not break me [financially]. But people wanted to get involved. My neighbor, Whisked Confections, started donating cookies. People were stepping up to help however they could — monetarily, with [their] time, bringing lunches to the senior home, dropping off single lunches to individual houses. It was a whole operation.

This was all happening during a difficult time for small business owners.

I wasn’t sure if my business was going to be OK. When people found out [about the lunch program], we got so much love and support. It made it easier financially to continue. Being able to help those in need is something that has always been inside me, but to help those in need in my community goes a little further.

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You’ve done collaborations with other business owners that are local. How did that happen?

Being in the community, being Black-owned, and having friends who also have businesses. A brewery opened in Orange called Four City. I started going there and we became friends. They approached me about their coffee stout after they learned I roast my own coffee. They wanted to start using our coffee for their stout. That’s how the Four City collaboration happened. And it came out really, really good.

Were there others?

I have customers who make their own soaps. We gave them some coffee, and they came up with a formula for this amazing bar of soap, Coffee Bar. The coffee grinds are an exfoliant — people love and swear by it.

I don’t think I could have imagined this happening, the collaborations. I’m excited, and even excited for future collaborations.

You touched on being a Black-owned business, how has that impacted Harper’s?

After [the murder of] George Floyd, there was a push to buy Black and support small Black-owned businesses — I felt that immediately. SZA (we went to the same high school) posted on Twitter to support Black-owned businesses and ended up retweeting Harper’s Cafe. A flood of people started to come in. Still to this day, we get customers and it was almost two years ago.

Harper’s Café (@HarpersCafeNJ on Instagram) is located at 134 South Valley Road, West Orange, New Jersey. They ship their coffee beans nationally.