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Blue Jacket sweetens city’s south side with Tall Rabbit Café

Courtesy/Stephen Phillipp
Hudson, on right giving a tour of the White Rabbit to Blue Jacket supporter, Stephen Phillipp.

Blue Jacket, Inc. has added a new social enterprise to its job training and placement services on the city’s south side, a coffee shop called the Tall Rabbit Café.

The facility, located at 2001 Calhoun Street, provides meeting and gathering spaces with many accommodations in a vintage, rustic throwback décor giving a subtle nod to the Tall Rabbit's “nickname-sake,” Chief Blue Jacket, according to Executive Director, Tony Hudson.

It is the fifth social enterprise the organization has implemented, and focuses directly on its mission to provide training and opportunities to anyone with a barrier who is striving to earn gainful employment.

Find out more about the organization and become involved at the Blue Jacket, Inc. website.

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

Julia Meek: Tony Hudson, welcome.

Tony Hudson: Thank you very much, Julia.

Julia Meek: So you have managed to open Blue Jacket's fifth social enterprise, this is taking place during your wildly popular Fantasy of Lights enterprise. So let's start with this. What are you thinking? (laughs)

Tony Hudson: I don't know if I was thinking at all. And I don't know if our entire leadership has been thinking.

Julia Meek: You haven't had time to think this crazy month of December. So really, congratulations. How is everything going over there at Blue Jacket?

Tony Hudson: Well I tell you, it is wonderful, we are smitten with the soft opening of the Tall Rabbit Café and community. We're excited about how well the Fantasy of Lights is going and excited about our 2023.

Julia Meek: You've got it all going and we look forward to hearing all about the Tall Rabbit Café. It's a total commitment to your community. And it brings a great service to downtown Fort Wayne. Tell us what can we expect as your soft launch continues on that retail space?

Tony Hudson: Well, I tell you, it is a beautiful space that originally was the showroom for the Irmscher Pella Window building and it's across from Saigon Restaurant on South Calhoun.

There's ample parking and once person would walk into our coffee shop, they would be probably blasted back 100 years, the intention is to make it look like an eclectic vintage, rustic environment. But it's really well done. It's really well designed. It's a gentle nod back to our namesake, which is Chief Blue Jacket. The Tall Rabbit is actually his nickname. And I'm going to tell you the descendants of the Chief Blue Jacket we're very, very excited to hear of this coffee shop launch in the nickname-sake of their as they say granddad.

Julia Meek: And in fact, Blue Jacket's focus is actually on the education and job training to the under skilled and the at risk populations, anybody that needs a good help up and out. You have actually added these five enterprises.

Tony Hudson: Mmhmm.

Julia Meek: From a management standpoint, juggling all of this management program plus finding other jobs for people, how is everything working for you?

Tony Hudson: Julia, we at Blue Jacket Inc. believe that no adult should have a barrier to employment. And we feel like as long as we're doing as much as we can to help a person with incredibly extreme barriers to enter into the workforce, to someone who just needs a little bit of a nod, some hope, some confidence and everyone in between, we want to be able to provide the capacity for them to work in community-based employment toward their career.

And for some people, that means that we would like to be able to hire them in-house, inside the guise of Blue Jacket, our umbrella organization. And we have the courage because we have an incredible board of directors and we have an incredible staff that work well together, the board of directors has a trust in our ability to champion their strategy. And we have a trust that our board of directors are great governors and fiduciary managers over our organization. That trust goes a long way in the nonprofit world where a board and a staff gel perfectly, and at Blue Jacket that happens.

We've been through the fires when we turned our backs on government funds in late 2012. And in those fires, we almost closed a number of times and we said we never want to go back there again. But Julia, I tell you, 19 and a half years ago, we incorporated the organization and on that application to the IRS requesting tax exemption as a 501c three nonprofit our application laid out what we were going to be doing and everything that we're doing today is how we envisioned Blue Jacket to be.

So it is an incredible testament to us being focused even though many people think what the heck are you doing? (chuckles) You know, this has always been the plan. It just happened to be that after 2012 we became kind of like a startup organization again, rethinking, "Hey, we should be serving people who don't just have criminal backgrounds, anyone with a barrier. And oh, by the way, we need to really be focusing on launching our clothing store because this clothing bank is getting much too large."

And so here in starts the launch of these social enterprises organically slowly, except for this Tall Rabbit Café, which has been quite a venture for us. It's incredible.

Julia Meek: As regards the Tall Rabbit in particular, in that Southside neighborhood, what do you feel that the whole thing brings to the area besides a darn good cuppa Joe they're gonna get there?

Tony Hudson: Well I tell you, when we originally started envisioning what this coffee shop would look like, I'm thinking drip coffee and a little bit of half and half, maybe some skim milk. To be honest, I am not a coffee expert, but God brought some incredible experts to the table to assist us.

So Brendon Maxwell of Utopian Coffee, and his right hand man, Jonathan and Jeremiah Otis, who owned Jeremiah's Brewed Awakenings up in Auburn have all been at the table helping us with these artisan coffee blends using Utopian Coffee with having this array of espresso based drinks that I never imagined I'd be able to pull a shot, an espresso shot, and froth milk. But we're doing it (chuckles) and that's exciting.

So for the community, there is a space that's been created. The décor I was mentioning earlier is incredible. And everything's been donated, and we've repurposed everything. But the great thing about the space is that there's private to pseudo private to pretty in the wide open, people have been using our alcoves to meet and stay around for not just a half an hour, we had people there for hours on Friday, just hanging out doing their business, it's become their office,

Julia Meek: it's not surprising, and we're so happy that you're getting the support. Now, each of your self contained Enterprises has a crazy wonderful service focus, your cleaning service, the Fantasy of Lights, you've got the Blue Jacket Clothing Company you mentioned, that goes right along with your food bank, and now the Tall Rabbit Café.

Tony Hudson: Mmhmm.

Julia Meek: As founder of Blue Jacket, what does this detailed, sincere degree of credibility that you're putting all together here specifically signify to you?

Tony Hudson: Hmm. I am honored when someone comes to the Fantasy of Lights, and they say, "I never knew what this light festival meant to me. And I found out about your mission, and I met the person who went through your program, and I've now fallen in love with your mission." What all of these enterprises does for me and it does for our staff is that it allows for us to open up our front doors to the Fort Wayne community and say, "walk on in, see how we treat each other and see how we will treat you.

And you can embrace us by you know, donating clothes and hiring are individuals that go through our two week Blue Jacket Academy or just come to the Fantasy of Lights. All of that goes back into providing career management, career development, job coaching, job placement services. And we have bolstered that in-house job development, pre employment training and development initiative for the last two years, we've been focusing really hard on backfilling those new positions for us. So that believe it or not, we have three employees per every one person. I mean, we dedicate three employees to one person to make sure that they find employment.

We serve about 200 people per year. And while that's low post pandemic, it is really on the uptick this past quarter. And we see that trend continuing. But these enterprises Julia, it gives us an opportunity total to have about 40 people placed transitionally for two weeks to three months to nine months to two years, depending on how much time they need with us and developing their on the job skills and standing on their own two feet. It could be, "Hey, I just want to make sure I have my sobriety far enough behind me," or, "I want to get my GED which is now called an HSE or just get my own apartment," and then we move them forward into their careers.

Julia Meek: And it's real skills, it's real services, it's real community betterment that's happening every day in every way through these services. Now a word on that ever perennial Fantasy of Lights, the whole thing started in 1994. thanks to (Benchmark Human Services). Blue Jacket took it over in 2014. And then of course, those peak pandemic years were unheard of when one could hardly do anything else but the Fantasy of Lights.

Tony Hudson: Right.

Julia Meek: Meanwhile, fast forward; it continues to expand to do incredibly well to offer more and more to its patrons. How has it been doing this year? What did you have to show the whole town this year?

Tony Hudson: Well, I tell you, we we had Santa Claus for 29 straight nights and free cocoa in the Pond Pavilion. And if you remember last year, we encountered a lot of hardship with vandalism and weather events closed down our Christmas market. And we had about 15 to 20 vendors in open tents and winds and rains just kind of wiped it out. So we promised each other that we would never have a market that large nor use tents ever again.

We're indebted to Johnny Appleseed Festival, they actually let us borrow them. But we realized that we were going to need to construct huts. So believe it or not a group of Leadership Fort Wayne individuals, all professionals, got together and said, "hey, we're going to construct these smaller huts and we're going to have them funded. Greater Fort Wayne and NIPSCO, Elevatus, Design Collaborative and Memorial Park School and the Amp Lab over at Electric Works, all these companies put their money where their mouth was and said let's create these vendor huts smaller so we can heat them.

That has been wonderful Julia, we have 160 plus sponsors and they say we love this community. We love this mission. We love being able to make the holidays bright for people who just want a little joy--they want to stay in their car or maybe not. They want to sit on Santa's lap, and we are smitten with the community support.

Julia Meek: Well the community is smitten with the Blue Jacket enterprises, this one in particular, Tony, and as you continue to get that Tall Rabbit all finely tuned and up and running with your coffee drinks, what's next on your drawing board?

Tony Hudson: Well, I tell you, board of directors and the staff continue to move forward with our strategy to make that Calhoun Street corridor beautiful. So we have intention to continue to make the 2800 block of South Calhoun gorgeous. We're actually kind of working on the Tall Rabbit, which is the 2000 block. And we're gonna work on some façade improvements there as well.

But the organization had an opportunity all in its lap that we will be merging with another thrift store in February. And I know it's just right around the corner. It's awe inspiring for us that we are trusted to be able to assist this thrift store. We have some great experience with the Blue Jacket Clothing Company, anyone who walks in those doors knows that they're going to receive the greatest service from the Blue Jacket clientele that work and manage that store but also it's cleanest, best organized that I can say in the region.

But merging with this other enterprise will allow us eventually to place more Blue Jacket clients and then remain perpetual in the Fort Wayne community growing and hopefully doing great.

Julia Meek: Could all of this simply be a "build it and they will come" kind of roll that you have landed yourself in? Your ideals are admittedly brilliant. You seem to not know any fear of hard work, and you do have a good feel what the community wants. Tony, what does all of this signify for Blue Jacket's long term success right here in the community it belongs in?

Tony Hudson: Well, I, I've had a tough time when I talk with you, Julia, to separate my faith with my position. This call has been it has been a very difficult walk sometimes, but an incredible rewarding one, when I'm affirmed time and again, that God brings incredibly hardworking and intelligent people to the table to carry out these activities.

I know that I'm a knucklehead, you know, I'm just a former wrestler that will say I don't care I have, I have very little fear and I go get it done. And you know, I spent four months twisting plumbing and painting and helping drywall this Tall Rabbit just because it needed to be done. And I see in the leaders at the organization that they are the exact same way. The one thing that I worry about is exhaustion, my team works so incredibly hard. So I'm going to try and find a way that we rest better and perpetually, what this means for Blue Jacket in the Fort Wayne community for years to come is that we know that God loves this mission.

And it will be around for a long time we see how things come together in a miraculous way that many times we just shrug our shoulders and shake our head and say to ourselves, only God could have done, you know, fill in the blank. Only God could have prevented us from having further calamity at the Fantasy of Lights because we happen to catch the vandals.

And only God could have brought Jeremiah and Brendan and Jonathan to the table so the Tall Rabbit is providing the most incredible artisan coffee in, in our minds. So I know that when I'm long gone, that the right people will still be brought to the table.

Julia Meek: How do your services and enterprises and the difference you're making which is all significant, Tony, compare to other communities our size? What can you teach the world about this level of caring kind of right here from your vantage point in Fort Wayne, Indiana?

Tony Hudson: I think that's a really good question. Social Enterprises in the world of the nonprofit communities, they've been around for many years. And I remember when we were pitching the idea 20 years ago, that we would cite Pioneer Human Services in Seattle, an $80 million operation managing a great number of enterprises, and we'd say, "hey, they have a cafeteria and they have a manufacturing facility."

And so Blue Jacket wanted to emulate that, you know, as we were kind of casting the vision 20 years ago, social enterprises, they're all over the place. And they're found more predominantly in larger cities. In cities our size you don't have Blue Jackets and it's because we have this rich support of the nonprofit community, from churches, from foundations from business leaders.

I don't think Blue Jacket would have survived in this MSA without having the Foellinger Foundations of the world and you know, the bigger companies that are philanthropic in their brand and Chuck Surak and Sweetwater Sound, they've pushed the envelope for other philanthropists to make it good for the nonprofit sector.

Julia Meek: So once again, it's all about the grassroots. And we do look to you and yours to guide us and inspire us, Tony, especially at this time of year. So before we let you go, what would you like to tell all of our listeners about what their part in making bluejacket and its clients a vital part of our community is?

Tony Hudson: I've reminded myself the last 10 years plus that you can't judge a book by its cover and opening those doors to the Fort Wayne community to walk into our coffee shop, to walk into our clothing store or Fantasy of Lights, and know that this person may have had the hardest life they could have ever imagined.

And here they are--here they are serving me and working hard to make ends meet, that they're working hard to move towards their career that the best way to be able to love a person sometimes is just to shake their hand, look him in the eyes and say, "thank you for what you do." That would be my request for the Fort Wayne community, just say thank you.

Julia Meek: Tony Hudson is Executive Director of Blue Jacket, Inc. Keep up the great work, Tony. Many blessings.

Tony Hudson: Thank you. Thank you for this time.

A Fort Wayne native, Julia is a radio host, graphic artist, and community volunteer, who has contributed to NIPR both on- and off-air for forty years. Besides being WBOI's arts & culture reporter, she currently co-produces and hosts Folktales and Meet the Music.