By Maria Vital
BU News Service
CAMBRIDGE — Inside Harvard’s Center for Government and International Studies, chocolate connoisseurs flocked to a table of muffins and coffee to give them that extra boost of early morning energy. As the chocolatiers mingled amongst themselves, smiling and devouring the catering, the providers of this service smiled as well, when they weren’t outside running after delivery cars in the rain.
Chasing down cars and tracking people down is just a part of the job at Breaktime Café.
Connor Schoen, 20, and Tony Shu, 19, are the Harvard students behind this Cambridge-based catering company (and eventual café) that is looking to hire homeless people and establish a brick and mortar shop soon in addition to the catering service.
The two met while volunteering at Y2Y in Harvard Square, a shelter for homeless youth. They said they witnessed young adults at Y2Y who weren’t able to find or maintain jobs due to external barriers such as lack of housing. There was a clear need for stepping stone employment opportunities that could potentially launch a career path.
“[Tony] came to me last January and said ‘I have this crazy idea,’” Schoen remembered.
That “crazy” idea became a reality with the help of many months of research. They found startling statistics on youth homelessness, which pushed them towards completing their business plan.
Homelessness in Cambridge has increased, according to Cambridge Point-in-Time data, a count of sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons on a single night in January. In 2017, there were 530 homeless people in Cambridge. There were 561 in 2018, with 62 – or more than ten percent – between 18 and 24 years old.
Matt Aronson, a national youth homelessness expert who spoke in a panel discussion on the issue last August, explained black, Hispanic and LGBTQ youths are highly affected by homelessness. Schoen recalled many of the people he worked with at Y2Y fell into those categories and found a greater struggle to find a profitable job despite being near such a prestigious institution.
“Harvard University is a place with a lot of money, power and influence,” Shu said. “Young people who are the exact same age as students in the same vicinity have very few opportunities. The level of inequality is very stark.”
Breaktime Café caters baked goods to organizations throughout Cambridge. For now, Shu and Schoen are helped by other students. They plan to hire homeless youth through a partnership with Y2Y where the shelter can recommend a person for a job through an online referral process. The employees will work part-time and earn $15 an hour.
With each catering event, a client to Breaktime will create jobs for homeless youth. With profits rolling in via catering services and a GoFundMe site, which has raised over $9,000 in five months for Breaktime’s eventual brick and mortar shop, Schoen and Shu said Breaktime is nearly ready to start hiring.
The catering company sources its products from local businesses. Cambridge’s Iggy’s Bread provides wholesale bagels through a recently established partnership.
“We hope the café helps change the lives of many people who struggle with homelessness,” Konstantin Ioannidis, a customer service representative at Iggy’s Bread, wrote in email.
The point of Breaktime Café’s catering service is to provide a one-stop shop that provides goods and services businesses and organizations might not have access to.
“[This puts Breaktime] in a niche where we are not only bringing cool services to the organizations that we work with but we’re also bringing added value in terms of marketing and sales to the bakeries we work with,” Schoen said.
The Breaktime brand, according to Schoen, emphasizes values of kindness, opportunity for all, responsibility and inclusion. Its purpose goes beyond food, bringing people into the workforce from all backgrounds and lifestyles.
“We want to show that business and social impact go hand in hand,” Shu said. “Our community is only as strong as our most vulnerable people.”