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Looking for a place to spend time with her friends without leaving social engagements smelling like an ashtray — remember when smoking was permitted in bars and restaurants — Jill Fink imagined creating an alternative gathering place for her and her neighbors in Fairmount to meet and mingle.
“I got tired of saying, ‘I wish there was a coffeeshop,’” said Fink.
This phrase demonstrates who Fink is as an entrepreneur — someone who has the guts to see a gap in the market, and then green-light an idea, making what others might seem out-of-reach manifest in the world. When I asked Fink about the word courage in this context she said, “I would like to think that it takes courage, but [whatever it is], it exists on a spectrum of faith and not knowing any better.” (We settled on “benign foolishness” before putting a pin in it and continuing the interview.)
“I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about running a business, and I don’t think I even wanted to run a business,” said Fink. When she first had the vision to bring a socially-conscious coffee shop to the Fairmount neighborhood, Fink was directing a women’s leadership program at the College of New Jersey. Through a series of unexpected events, circumstances, and a back injury, Fink found herself with the time and resources to focus on taking the coffee shop from a quixotic fantasy to a brick and mortar reality.
From second to tenth grade, Fink grew up in rural, central New Jersey — Hunterdon County. She reminisced about a simple childhood replete with bicycle rides through the bucolic landscape, trips, with carrots in tow, to the nearby horse farm, and a rural, heuristic education (Fink learned about lanolin from petting sheep at her neighbors’ house).
Eventually, Fink’s childhood Arcadia mutated into a countryside blotted by the McMansion-style homes marking the deterioration of the region’s agricultural past into the homogeneous terrain that has become all too familiar.
Struck by a community that had almost become unrecognizable to her, she initially had difficulty expressing why this change was so upsetting to her. This was the community where she learned to love the short distance between her and her food. But now, the community was changing, and the direction in which it was changing did not sit right with her.
With her business, Fink knew that she could take an action step to support these farmers. She wondered, “How can I contribute to helping them make a living and doing what they have always done?” This mission is vital to Mugshots’ business anatomy. “Opening up my own business was absolutely about being able to support local businesses, so that farmers could continue their way of life,” she said.
This is Jill Fink and by extension, her business. Fink is heart and grit, the one not overshadowing the other. Even in my short interview with her, her tenacity and empathy are apparent and complimentary.
“Service to others,” she said, “is how I was brought up and I have been very fortunate that I can embody that in my work.”
Since the beginning, Mugshots was committed to sourcing locally and living out the socially conscious values of its owner, Fink. The shop has been working with farms — including Green Meadow Farm — for fourteen years to introduce local produce and products to the neighborhood and city at large. (Mugshots is also a founding B-Corp Member.)
It’s fair to say that Mugshots has been sourcing locally since before it was a viable green marketing strategy, although Fink recognizes that while it is part of their core identity as a business, it is not as much as a differentiation anymore.
Still, Fink takes a high tides raise all ships approach to the growing popularity of local food in cafes and restaurants. “If I am going to be sincere in saying that I want farmers to make a living and to stay on their farms and support their families, then I want as many people as possible buying from them,” she said. But Fink is confident that even if there is some “green-washing” happening as sourcing locally becomes a restaurant trend that “people are, generally speaking, pretty savvy — people see who is genuine.”
At the end of the day, however, Fink believes “in talking about the positive things that we are doing — its up to the consumers to decide.”
Mugshots is a values-driven cafe, and Fink and her team are grounded in the work they do, but they are still adapting, changing, and responding to both the market and the different ways that the cafe can have a positive impact in the community and beyond.
On a recent trip to Sri Lanka, Fink was surprised by the amount of plastic water bottles spotting the beautiful beaches. “I had seen this kind of litter, trash before, but there was something about the sheer amount of plastic bottles that hit me a certain way,” said Fink.
Upon her return, Fink told the staff, “We’re done — get through this pallet of water bottles and then we’ll figure out what’s next.” She was convicted and she took action. (It’s not surprising that this is the same person who transformed her want for a neighborhood cafe into one important aspect of her career.)
It’s clear that being compassionate, innovative, sustainable, and caring is part of Fink’s DNA and the cafe she built with her previous partner, but I was curious how she sells sustainability to her employees, imbues the business’s values into its employee culture.
“To some extent, a number of employees come to us because they know our mission and want to be a part of it,” she said. Fink shared that for many employees, they have similar values and are excited to find an opportunity to express them during their workday.
Because Mugshots hires a diverse group of people from “all walks of life,” Fink recognizes that sustainability is not always top-of-mind for employees. “It takes time and patience,” she said. “You always start with people where they are. It’s pretty basic — you bring them along and you explain to people why we make the decisions that we do and the impact that it has.”
Still, Fink realizes that coming in and getting a paycheck is going to sometimes trump how much employees care about what farm the bacon is sourced from, but part of her job is to help them see why those things are important but to also pay them a fair wage and help them come into an environment that is supportive, friendly, and modeling sustainable practices.
Fink’s other full-time job is at Food Moxie where she serves as Executive Director. Food Moxie’s goal is to connect people to the earth, their health, and each other through fun and experiential food and farming programs (www.foodmoxie.org).
In one of their projects, Food Moxie is working with Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences in Roxborough to use aquaponics to grow salad greens. They are working with them to put together a marketing plan and pricing structure. “Hopefully we will see a Saul Salad on our menu one day so that Mugshots can feature the work that those students are doing to promote local agriculture,” she said.
Mugshots has a long history already. Over the years, Fink has had a hard-working team, including one partner who left at the end of 2015, that have supported the cafe’s vision and mission. Recently, Fink hired Dan Pennachietti, who previously served as Co-Founder of the Philadelphia Mobile Food Alliance, to act as General Manager for the business. In addition to running a coffee shop and cafe, Mugshots also offers Farm to Office Catering.
The story of Mugshots demonstrates a quality that we see in several Sustainable Business Network members — they see a gap in the market, a way to serve the community, a way to have an impact and they take a leap to turn an idea into a reality. To me, this takes courage and imagination. And speaking of imagination — when I asked Fink about one of her favorite breakfast sandwiches she introduced me to an innovative, and potentially surprisingly delicious, way to start you day: cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese and bacon — locally-sourced of course.