The Third Perk Coffee House & Wine Bar experience
“My uncle was one of the first people to pour into [the vision] for my coffee house,” says Juanita Darden, as she prunes the potted plant from her late uncle’s funeral. “He died in 2014,” she says, cutting away the brown-edged leaves then sweeping the floor. Third Perk Express (at the NE corner inside Gem City Market), Darden says she opened the doors to the first Third Perk (previously at 46 W. Fifth Street) one year later in 2015.
When asked why she started a coffee business, Darden said “I frequented North River Coffee House.” It was located across Salem Avenue from the new market, and you can see it as you enter or exit Third Perk Express. “I felt like at the time they closed they had got a lot of things right. You could grab your breakfast there. The pieces were coming together and then they closed. I am going to open a coffee house,” she told herself.
“We recently started our own bottled beverage program,” said Darden, including Mango Iced Tea, Peach Iced Tea, and Lemon Ginger Iced Tea. The Mango Iced Tea “is getting a lot of good press,” she said. “I am really proud of these products.” The beverages will be available at all Third Perk locations.
"We are looking at another space in Greene County that I am excited about."
Darden talks openly about other entrepreneurial ventures that did not work out. “I found a place at the corner of Catalpa and Hillcrest. I was going to make the best coffee, and I would call it The Corner Coffee House, and that lasted five minutes,” she said jokingly, “and then I did something else. Then in 2012, I needed to do something that would sustain me and my family and provide supplemental income. I got the entrepreneurship bug” again and “because I had been in business before and it did not go too well, I decided in early 2013 to get serious about it. First, I called my pastor because I wanted to be spiritually [ready]. During my first business ventures, I was spiritually immature, and I did not recognize the Holy Spirit telling me to wait. Not stop but wait!
I remember walking across my mom’s lawn and as clear as my name is Juanita,” she said, “the Holy Spirit said, “Wait,” and I remember thinking at the time, I am starting this business! Because she did not wait, “that business was open and closed within six months, but “…all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.” (Rom. 8:28).
Before Third Perk Coffee House, she said she ventured into boutique ownership in 2002. “It was cute,” she said, reflecting on how far she has come, how failure taught her to pay attention. “But the timing was off, and it was not supposed to succeed because the Holy Spirit told me to wait. I was not supposed to win. I was supposed to fall on my face [the way] I did. I was a poor planner. I had the business plan template, I played with it a little bit, but then I told myself, I know how to do this, and it did not work.”
“I started working with Adrienne Heard, who was a business advisor at the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) in March 2013,” said Darden. “We opened [Third Perk] in June 2015. I decided to [write and] follow the business plan, then I had to look for the right space that fit the plan. I thought I was going in to one space, but that space did not work out; I thought I was going into another space, and that space did not work out either.”
Darden said, “The business started as Perk Coffee House, and after changing the name to Third Perk, I gave up on the idea that the coffee house needed to be on Third Street.” Her business advisor at SBDC suggested that Third in the business name may have more to do with experiences rather than location. The Third Perk Coffee House & Wine Bar experience includes coffee, a wine bar, and an art gallery for local artists.
When asked who her customers are, she said, “EVERYBODY! We have become known as The People’s Coffee House because we reflect our Montgomery County community.” She seems surprised that ex-congressman (and Dayton Peace Prize winner) Tony Hall will pop in. She smiles when she talks about how her late “father would be tickled to death that the congressman was there. Or Rhine McLin, Bootsy Neil, or the mayor, or city commissioners, or whomever… [and that] his daughter has built a coffee house, and everybody goes there.
When I was creating the business plan, it was my goal to be a good business and not focus solely on the fact that I am a black-owned business. I wanted to be a business that was respected, that provides good service, offers quality product, and where people would feel safe, because if people feel safe, customers will return. I wanted people to enjoy being in the space. I wanted people to have great experiences,” she said. She wants people to feel like it is their coffee house. “A place where people can have meetings,” enjoy events, have great coffee, or wine, and enjoy a tasty chicken salad sandwich. She wants people to come back because they are treated well, and the service is good. She says you can enjoy a smoothie with a vitamin boost too.
Darden says the pandemic has impacted her business. She noticed that not as many customers were moving about. People are [still] concerned about their own personal safety, and says she understands that. “I made the decision to immerse myself in my business,” but she does not know if that is the safest thing for her. “I don’t know,” she says.
Before Governor DeWine ordered malls and storefronts to close, the Fifth Street location was already transitioning to the new Third Street space. A bout with carpal tunnel and her decision to not get the surgery, she said she was able to rest during the early days of the pandemic. “I am glad I didn’t get it,” she said. “I am happy.” Darden says what kept her financially afloat was that she was still working full-time at Sinclair. In July 2020, she “took a leap of faith.” She said she wasn’t sure she could run her business full time and asked herself, “You’re going to leave your job? It was time,” she said.
Darden said she “leaned into her prayer circle. Joshua Ward and Rev. Dionne of Omega Baptist Church, Linda Wells of Phillips Temple, Tiffany Boseman, Dr. Crystal Phillips, Amaha Sellessie and Lela Klein of Co-op Dayton, Leah Bahan-Harris of Gem City Market, Deacon David Abney of Wise Construction, Jasmine Brown, and Min. Raleigh Thornton prayed over the market, over the coffee house, and over the land, so that it will be lifted,” she said, like a beacon on a hill.
“People have worked for six years and dedicated themselves to [Gem City Market],” Darden said. “Things did not happen overnight.” She said she worked on Third Perk for two years before ever opening the doors at the first coffee house. She was planning and collecting mugs and cups. She was learning how to do things, working with designers, trying to figure out the right location, and trying to raise capital. “Good businesses do not just appear,” she said. “Some people sit around waiting for others to fail. That is a testament to who they are. [Entrepreneurs] must remember that naysayers are spectators. Naysayers are the best coaches, the best players, and the best referees, [who] never have the courage to [get in the game and] play.
“We want you to park, grab some Java, and do your happy shopping,” she said. “You will have a wonderful drink that is made with love. You can stop by on your way to I-75. We open at 6:30 am, and the coffee house has its own door. The market shopping carts even have a cup holder. Darden said she did not have to ask Gem City Market to consider this. Her facial expression was a mix of gratefulness and surprise when recounting this.
The Express location will not have wine but is considering some wine tastings with the market.
Between 2008 and July 2020, Darden was a full-time Professor in the Mathematics Department at Sinclair Community College. “I needed to decide whether moving my business forward full time, “whether putting all my energy towards it was what I needed to do,” she said. Darden is now a student in the Doctor of Business Administration program at Franklin University. “I plan to return to the classroom in about five years,” she said, “after the coffee houses are in a place where I can return to teaching. I love to teach. Now “I have an opportunity to have my theory and practice come together. I want “to work with students who are maybe in an entrepreneurship program.” “I've done some things right and I've done some things where I thought, you shouldn’t have done that or that was hard or maybe starting a business without money is not a good idea,” she said. “There are no grants to start a business. It is not magical. If it were, everyone would be the owner of a multimillion-dollar business.”
When asked what kind of marketing she did for Third Perk, Darden said she went to a trade show and found out initially that she had one-fifth of the capital she needed to get started. “Because I was using the services of the SBDC, because they connected me with other people, and because I went to City of Dayton leaders and told them, Hey, I’m going to be two blocks away from your office, and I want you to support my business,” she was marketing her business in person. “That was one year before I opened,” she said. “I went to the mayor's office and asked that city leaders get on board with this business. People would ask me, “What does that mean?” Darden said she would reply, “Come by, buy coffee” and be a part of things going on at the coffee house.
“Introducing yourself to people helps them get to know you,” Darden said. “Those conversations helped people remember my name. I was doing the work that happens before the business opened and that gave me some credibility; they trusted me more because they knew I was taking this venture seriously.” She says she refers to her business plan regularly now. She believes that setting small and simple goals is doable. “I want to accomplish more goals,” she said. One goal Darden has is to enjoy herself while she is doing it.
Darden said she was mentored in business by SBDC, Dr. Karen Townsend, Ida Nalls, Tiffany Bozeman, Dr. Crystal Phillips, Dionne Dotson. Many of these people “have been a part of my prayer circle from the very beginning.” She mentioned LaKeisha Grant of Ambition Magazine (who is now an advisor with the Small Business Development Center). She and Grant “would kick around ideas, and it was informal, but it was good conversation and sage advice,” she said. Jasmine Brown of DeLish, Kate Rivers of Twist Cupcakery, and Lisa Scott of Beaute Box would get together and talk about business. Darden finds that having a network of people to discuss business with is extremely helpful. “You realize you do not have to suffer alone…because it is not just you.
Darden says what entrepreneurs need to start and maintain a successful business is planning. “If you plan correctly,” she said, “you will know how much money you need, you will know how many staff you need (or whether you need staff at all). You do not want to get into the midst of business and not know what you need to know. Of course, you do not know what you do not know. Darden says she is still learning.
Keep up with Third Perk Express’s Grand Opening inside Gem City Market on May 12th at 12:00 pm. You will find the locations, hours, and menus at https://www.thirdperk.biz/. You can also sign up for their subscription program. Park. Coffee. Shop. Perk Up!