By Christina Autry
“I always say, ‘God is the owner of my business’,” begins Ruby Woodward of Coffee and Cake Café, a small business in the Five Corners District with a unique mission. Ruby and I sat down at one of the tables inside her cozy coffee shop, tables that as a small business owner, she hand-picked before opening in 2018. With scripture verses hanging on the walls, gospel music playing in the background, and the warm hospitality of Ruby, it was immediately apparent that something was different about this coffee shop.
Ruby founded Coffee and Cake Café as a way to provide employment for formerly incarcerated individuals. People reentering society from prison typically have an extremely difficult time getting hired. Oftentimes the formerly incarcerated are both immersed in the same influences they were surrounded with before their sentence, and unable to find legitimate work. Across the United States, the recidivism rate within five years is a staggering 76% (bjs.gov).
“I’ve seen some of people go get degrees and are still rejected by employers,” says Ruby. “What are we doing as a society? We want people to pay for their crimes, but it shouldn’t be a life sentence. That’s where my faith is utilized to encourage people. We can keep moving forward past rejection.”
“It’s a lot easier to be hired when you’re currently working,” she explains. As a retired 20-year parole officer, Ruby knows first-hand the struggles faced by inmates when reentering society. On top of her day job, Ruby volunteered for ten years in prison ministry. She was able to speak with the prisoners who recidivated, and ask them, “what happened?” Many would tell Ruby that they lacked support for making changes in their lives once they returned home.
Being a woman of action, Ruby formulated her response to this problem by founding her 501(c)(3), Renew All Ministries, in 2002. The goal of Renew All, and the Reentry Supportive Services program that it offers, is to “encourage formerly incarcerated adults and at-risk teens through programming and support to overcome barriers that lead to criminal behavior and incarceration.” Renew All Ministries provides case management, employment referrals, life coaching, and connects ex-offenders to needed social services.
After years of experience, Ruby has seen time and again that “a supportive environment and accountability partners are necessary in the transformation process.” And this is precisely what Coffee and Cake Café, another branch of Renew All Ministries, brings to the table.
The café started as a popup at Brentwood Baptist Church, where Ruby received a great deal of support and encouragement from the church community. Ruby used the money raised to help support her non-profit. “I decided I wanted to expand past just selling on Sundays, and also find a location that is along the bus route, for the convenience of the employees,” says Ruby.
She began holding popups at New Faith Church, practically next door to what became their new, permanent location. “Pastor Lewis and the New Faith community have overwhelmingly supported us, and let us sell our food til past the second service,” says Ruby. Another faith-based boost came in the form of the Project Flourish grant, awarded by First Presbyterian Church to businesses that seek to make a difference in the community.
Both Ruby’s ability to connect ex-offenders with opportunities and resources, while allowing them to build their resumes is already turning lives around in the community. Since opening in July of 2018, Ruby has been able to hire four employees who had previously been in prison. “The coffee bar is meant to be transitional employment,” explains Ruby. Employees in the past year have gone on to find jobs in food service, and one even began doing prison ministry herself.
Employees at Coffee and Cake Café work on tasks within the shop “depending on what their gifting is, and what skills they have,” says Ruby. In a small business with all hands on deck, this could mean serving as a barista, cashier, cleaning, providing customer service, labeling food, and much more.
Coffee and Cake Café isn’t just helping employees, it’s providing a much-needed source for homestyle baked goods that will satisfy any sweet tooth in the Five Corners. Ruby’s nutmeg-infused, buttery tea cakes, iced lemon pound cake, or red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting will be enough to keep you coming back for more. And with prices like $2.50 for a slice of delicious cake, it’s hard not to leave with armful of goodies.
“People are excited to have a coffee shop in the area. They don’t have to go to Pearland to get a good cup of coffee and pastries,” says Ruby. One such customer explained to Ruby that she too was an ex-offender, and seeing Ruby open her own coffee shop was an inspiration for her to try and start her own business as well. “Now I’m able to mentor her. She wants to help others who are formerly incarcerated. The shop is inspiring people to become entrepreneurs. I didn’t factor that in there,” laughs Ruby.
By the beginning of 2020, Ruby hopes to establish a popup at an additional church in the community, and work on starting a mobile unit for bringing to events. Her goal is to be able to support additional employees on a full-time basis. “We have to keep building so we can continue carrying out the mission,” she says.
Much of Ruby’s joy comes from being part of the community, and her adherence to “helping people get their lives back together to accomplish things,” she states.
Ruby encourages all ex-offenders to know that “the sky is the limit, as long as you’re willing to do the work.” Although some refer to businesses such as Coffee and Cake Café as a “second chance employer,” Ruby reminds us that sometimes it’s not simply a second chance. “Whether it’s a second, third, or fourth chance that they need, if someone makes up their mind to change, we’re here for them,” she smiles.