Service with a smile, and a lesson

Hannah Burlingame photos/Review • Warrior Wake Up is the new student-run coffee shop at Henry Sibley High School, a part of the Relevant Education Approach to Learning program. When not making drinks, students do prep-work so the coffee shop is ready for business the next day. Students rotate tasks each day so they all get exposed to different jobs.

Hannah Burlingame photos/Review • While Melinda Weiss, a special education teacher, helps students like ninth-grader Luke Aune with their tasks, there is a student manager each day who makes sure the other students are accomplishing what they need to do.

Hannah Burlingame photos/Review • The cafe gives students with disabilities a real-world education experience while also providing students and staff with fresh coffee.

Henry Sibley coffee shop helps give students real work skills. 


At Henry Sibley High School, students and faculty have a new way of getting their morning pick-me-up — Warrior Wake Up opened its doors at the beginning of the school year. 

However, the coffee shop is about more than just providing some morning joe — it's providing real world experiences for students with disabilities.

Two years ago, Melinda Weiss, a Henry Sibley special education teacher, had the idea of doing something that would give her students, who are part of Relevant Educational Approach to Learning program, some hands-on job experience. With a bit of online inspiration, a light bulb turned on in Weiss' head.


Going big

"There's a lot of high schools that have coffee shops," Weiss says. She talked to Nancy Coffeen, the work coordinator for the district, about getting the coffee shop business going. The idea at first was for a coffee cart. Coffeen saw a coffee machine on clearance and brought it. 

After the purchase, Weiss says more people were brought in.

"Our director of special ed was like, 'We need to go bigger. We're going bigger with this thing,'" Weiss says.

It took a year of planning before the coffee shop window opened. Weiss says she talked with folks from the Minnesota Department of Health, to the Department of Education and beyond, to learn about the rules the shop would need to follow.

Last March, Weiss says the program applied for a grant from the ISD 197 Foundation and was awarded $1,600. This money was used, she says, for "everything."

Over the summer of 2017, work was done to get the coffee shop ready to open for business. This included getting everything organized and supplies ordered, as well as taste-testing coffee. Weiss says she emailed anyone and everyone who deals with coffee in the Twin Cities area.

"We had so many coffee samples last year, it was amazing," she says.

Sandy's Coffee came out on top after a school staff taste testing. Beyond coffee beans, Sandy's provided eight pots, two pour-over brewing machines and a bean hopper-grinder.


Getting going

Warrior Wake Up opened for business in October 2017 after students trained through September. 

Henry Sibley students can get coffee from the shop before school starts. Once class is in session, the customer base switches to teachers-only — they can place delivery orders during first period. 

Each shift, students rotate positions, from manager to coffee-maker, to working the window and answering the phone for deliveries.

Right now, there is only a cash box, so Weiss says the students are really learning how to use money and make change. 

She says the program is planning on writing another grant to get a point-of-sales system that is both more reliable and will provide a more realistic look at what a job could be like.

With this being the first year of the program, Weiss says she had no idea what to expect.

"Every expectation that I had, they have just surpassed," she says. "To watch the kids now, they'll be silly, goofy during the day or in our classes, but then they put on the apron and they are really taking it seriously. That's huge."

Weiss sends out an email to parents each couple of months to see if their kids want to help at the shop before school. 

Junior Hope Mendes has been working at the shop since it opened. She says she thought working there would be fun because she has always wanted to work at Caribou Coffee.

"I'm learning right here before I get to the next job," Mendes says, adding her favorite part is putting together orders.

Matthew Fisher, a senior, says he was surprised when Weiss came to the students about her idea of the coffee shop because they had never done it before.

Fisher says he thinks things are going well so far. His favorite part of working in the shop is switching jobs every day.

"Working at the shop will probably help progress how I do after school," Fisher says, adding that working at the shop has helped him learn different skills.


A learning experience

Weiss says the Relevant Educational Approach to Learning program has two classes with 30 students and uses an on-site apartment so students get to share a space where they practice life skills.

"There's really only so much you can do in a classroom ... being able to work in the apartment really gives the kids an opportunity to be more hands on," she says, pointing out the hands-on aspect is why she wanted to start the coffee shop — because it's a real business. 

So far this year, Warrior Wake Up has served close to 3,000 cups of coffee, hot chocolate, chai and tea. In the last couple of months, the students have done more with the shop, including the student of the month breakfast, key club and pancake breakfast.

Weiss says the whole school has been supportive, and the student body helped come up with the name.

Besides math skills, working at the coffee shop is helping the students with their communication skills, as well. Weiss says a lot of the kids don't answer the phone at home, but do at the coffee shop.

Parents love that this opportunity has been offered to their kids, Weiss says — it's an experience that many of the kids have never had before. 

Working at the coffee shop is helping the students learn about leadership, she adds. Most of the students are in 11th- and 12th-grade, and she wanted to make sure seniors who are graduating had this opportunity before they left Henry Sibley.

The experience at the coffee shop will be something the students can put on their resumes. Mendes listed her work at Warrior Wake Up in an application for a job.

Weiss says she would like to see the shop continue to grow and maybe get its own space one day with high-top tables — right now it operates out of the faculty lounge.

She says she wanted to create the shop so students can make mistakes, but still grow from them.

"[Mrs. Weiss] set this up for us. She wants it to be good because she wants it to be good for us," Mendes says. "She's doing it for her students, so they can learn how to work."


– Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-748-7824 or

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