PJ’s Coffee grows on high school grounds as students show interest in coffee
January 30 - 2023
Coffee Geography Magazine
PJ’s Coffee has more than 150 locations with some have drive-troughs concentrated in southern states. But now the company recently grows into new market areas where students located with about half a dozen branches on public and private high school campuses. The first opened at a Louisiana high school once attended by PJ’s owners.
High school students from Walker High work also at PJ’s Coffee who are getting their first work experience at the chain restaurant. Pouring cups of coffee and stirring lattes, they’re dipping their toes in the real world of jobs and employment that awaits them once their schooling is finished.
But unlike most of those other kids in entry-level jobs, the Walker High School students are working at PJ’s as part of their formal education. Located in a small town outside Baton Rouge, their school is one of a small but growing number of high schools around the country that have set up PJ’s Coffee franchises. The operation of the store, from filling coffee cups to sweeping floors to filing taxes, is all handled by student workers. The coffee shop is seen as a modern-day version of the vocational training school—like a 21st-century shop class.
“They learn inventory, marketing, advertising, customer service, soft skills, and they learn how to make coffee,” says Jason St. Pierre, principal at Walker High School. “In essence we are training baristas in high school so they can go to work once they graduate from high school.” The PJ’s at Walker High School is an attempt to offer that preparation. About 35 students work these shifts, which are treated like any other credit-earning class. The shop can take orders through an app, and staffers can deliver drinks to faculty or parents dropping off students in the morning. (Deliveries to students are not allowed.)
The franchise development manager, Tori Bermond explains that the Pj’s helps potential franchisees to operate in these areas where clients could order their favorite coffee without going far from their work.
“We are somewhat surprised by the interest we ‘re seeing from high schools. We certainly didn’t have access to lattes and cappuccinos,” she says.
But Bermond argues that bringing a coffee chain to a high school is not about hooking new caffeine addicts in a captive environment. It’s an amenity, for sure, but it’s also a real functioning business that students can learn from the inside out. “It’s a way for them to really incorporate the education piece with the service piece,” she says.
St. Pierre sees the PJ’s outlet at Walker High as part of a much-needed revolution in high school education. About 83% of Louisiana students graduate from high school, and about 56% enroll in college. “What are we doing with the other half?” he asks. “What are we doing to prepare them?”
While the businesses operating on campus do generate some revenue, St. Pierre says the true benefit is offering students a variety of options for testing out their interests and learning relevant skills for the future. “All the kids across the spectrum, whether they’re special needs or they’re going to Harvard, we can service them,” he says.
The campus has a wide range of student-run businesses and occupational training programs in addition to PJ’s, according to St. Pierre, including a Papa John’s pizza shop, a credit union, a Nike Store, a sports medicine clinic, a TV station that broadcasts in nine Louisiana parishes, pharmacy technician and medical assistant training programs, a real estate academy, firefighting certification courses, a paint and body shop, a welding shop, an electrical shop, and a carpentry shop. “I’m probably leaving out a couple more,” St. Pierre says, “but you get the point.” For PJ’s, the economic returns are minor, according to Bermond. High school locations pay a discounted franchise fee of $15,000. (Bermond estimates it costs schools about $50,000 total to set up a store.)
St. Pierre sees the on-campus PJ’s and all the other trade- and business-focused programs as ways to make high school more relevant to the modern world. “We have to redesign high school,” he says. “Schools ought to be a conduit, from school to work or school to school, whatever you plan on doing.”