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by Anna Stalker
Published January 21, 2015

Anna is a writer, reader, and observer-at-large who grew up in the South without a Southern accent. She had an early inkling that lives are built of stories, and ever since she has been trying to write them down. She enjoys St. Louis for its afternoon thunderstorms and knack for attracting good people.

Why Jessie Mueller of Rise Coffee Thinks Compassion is Radical

At Rise Coffee in the Grove, cardboard coffee sleeves have been tacked to a board across from the register that can be redeemed for free drinks, including organic blends by local roasters like Sump and Kaldi’s. Through a program called “Coffee for the People,” patrons at Rise can pre-purchase cups of coffee for friends or strangers, writing the desired recipient on a coffee sleeve and tacking it onto the community board. Today, the board is crowded, covered in well-wishes to strangers written in colorful marker: “12 oz pour for someone dreaming of something bigger,” “Free 12 oz cup of drip if you’ve cried in the past few weeks,” “Free hot tea if you’ve been arrested recently. I recommend the chamomile.” “My lattes are four dollars. I just really struggle with that. I want [Rise] to be accessible to everyone in this neighborhood,” explains Jessie Mueller, owner and founder of the coffee shop. Today, she wears oversized white earrings crocheted by a local artist, her blonde hair sweeping across her forehead. “We have people walking through our door who never felt like this was a space they could access.”

Upstairs, jewel-toned upholstered chairs are pushed up against the exposed brick walls, and a designated children’s area occupies the back of the room. “Moms feel like they can go to a place with craft coffees and feel wanted with their children,” Mueller says. Colorful rugs line the floor, and a shelf decorated with paint-smudged handprints holds brightly-colored picture books. Most afternoons, she brings her son to Rise after he finishes school. “I wanted him to feel like this was a place where he could come play, and there would be other kids here.”

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Mueller never planned on becoming an entrepreneur. Before opening Rise, she had been pursuing a master’s degree in social work, and took time off from classes to stay at home with her newborn son. Soon, the isolation began to weigh on her. “I was in a weird transition time. I was staying home, trying to get back into school, but really not sure what I wanted to do,” she says. “It was one of those times in my life where I was just like, ‘I’m really lost.’” Without the structure of schoolwork or a career, the days felt aimless. “I was at home every day with an infant just trying to figure out, ‘What do I do with my whole day, from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed?’” she remembers. “I felt really hopeless … I felt like I should enjoy it more.” She came to understand it as postpartum depression, struggling some days to find a reason to get dressed or leave the house. “I need interaction, and I need community,” she says. “I wanted to be home with him, and I couldn’t imagine sending him to a sitter–but I’m not a stay-at-home mom minded person.”

When she began working part-time in the Grove, she felt a weight begin to lift. “I would come here and I felt alive again. I felt needed and necessary,” she says. “There is a true sense of open-mindedness here … there is a sense of equality that I seek as a human being for other human beings.” Mueller searched the Grove with her husband for a building to renovate, and decided on a two-story bungalow on Manchester. “It was a shell, truly,” she says, but small details of the renovation encouraged her: vintage brick beneath sheets of plaster, exposed beams beneath the modern roof.

In preparation for opening Rise, she flew to Portland and spent two weeks taking classes on craft coffee. “I think my lack of confidence from the beginning of starting a cafe, and not understanding the coffee as well as I probably should have before I opened it, put me in a position where I felt a lot of fear. I felt very vulnerable.” At times, her new role as a business owner created unforeseen challenges: she couldn’t pay her employees the wage she had envisioned, and couldn’t afford to offer them healthcare. In order to continue offering specialty, locally-roasted coffee, she realized she would have to raise her prices–but in an effort to remain welcoming to struggling neighbors, she decided to offer free coffee to long-term residents.

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Mueller grew up in St. Charles, a 40-minute drive from St. Louis. She and her two brothers were raised by a single mother–Mueller remembers her mother working long hours, and food growing scarce at certain times of the month. They picked up groceries from a discount supermarket or a food pantry, and rarely shopped for new clothes. “It was paycheck to paycheck my entire childhood, and I knew that,” she says. “Watching your mom struggle, you can’t not know … it’s a panicky, anxious feeling.” Mueller got a job at a local donut shop as soon as she could to help support her family. In high school, some of her friends blew off steam by skipping classes and partying–though she sometimes joined them, Mueller developed relationships with her teachers and principal, relying on them for support. “I just was desperate for connection,” she says. “I would go to school even though I was exhausted and didn’t really care that much about school at all … because they were rooting for me.”

After high school, Mueller studied English at Lindenwood University, the first member of her family to attend college. At the urging of her professors, she became a teacher herself, and taught language arts to eighth-graders at Rockwood for five years. Every year she taught lessons about “The Diary of Anne Frank,” and when she would ask her students to define a “ghetto,” some of her students who had been bussed into the County through the desegregation program replied with some variation of “I live in one.” “I just wasn’t as concerned about the grades as their emotional and socio-economic issues,” Mueller says. “That was really intriguing to me–how do kids escape poverty? What does it take?”

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Outside of Rise, a board hangs on a chain-link fence near the shop’s door, hand-painted with the slogan “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.” Mueller explains that the owner of the HandleBar, a nearby nightlife spot, gave it to her after a homeless man threw a brick through the window of Rise. “That’s a radical notion–to set aside your anger,” she says. She had met the man before–he used the “Coffee for the People” board every day, and she knew that he struggled with mental illness. She hung the painted message as a calming reminder to patrons who were angry about the vandalism. “No one’s going to change until you come at them from a position of empathy.”

Most afternoons, the streets of the Grove neighborhood are deserted and quiet. Rise’s teal-trimmed windows are typically crowded with twentysomethings at work, laptops open and lattes steaming beside their keyboards. The interior of the shop is packed with souvenirs of Mueller’s convictions: a “Black Lives Matter” sign has been taped in a front window, and a small block of wood stamped with “be the change” in inky letters rests on an upstairs windowsill. “As business owners we have a stronger voice … a bigger platform,” she says. “When you have experience to back up the things you say, you’re able to be heard a little bit more. It’s an empowering feeling.” A few weeks ago, Mueller posted a photo of herself to the shop’s Instagram account, holding a cup of coffee in a white vintage mug, slightly hazy in the light filtered through Rise’s upstairs windows. “Choosing love over fear today,” the caption reads. “The coffee helps.”

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For more information about Jessie Mueller or Rise Coffee, visit here.

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No one’s going to change until you come at them from a position of empathy.”

– Jessie Mueller

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