How a Bladen County coffee shop is brewing the next generation of workers

By Ivey Schofield

As a high school senior, Meagan Burney has already learned the valuable skill of time management. 

She arrives at her job at 5:30 a.m., works for two hours, goes to class at the local community college, returns to work, goes home to finish her high school online classes and then attends volleyball practice. 

Even though Burney sometimes feels burnt out, she says her schedule is manageable because of her bosses, Bo and Kelly Barefoot, and their unique way of running their two businesses in Elizabethtown in Bladen County. 

Kelly Barefoot and Ragan Blackmon work the cappuccino machine.
Photos by Les High

At Barefoot Brew and Barefoot Sandwich Shoppe in the quaint downtown, the couple employ about 75 Bladen County students, offering them their first jobs and teaching them skills that they will be able to use in their future careers. They also support their employees outside of work, cheering them on at their sporting events and pageants. 

“The kids are absolutely amazing,” Kelly Barefoot said. “It is a family environment, and it is more rewarding to us.”

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Lack of experience is one of the most common reasons employers across North Carolina find it difficult to fill vacant jobs, according to a 2020 survey by the N.C. Department of Commerce. Exposing young people to different work environments and offering them opportunities could help alleviate that problem. 

Bladen County has an unemployment rate of 4.5%, higher than the statewide rate  of 3.4%. The Barefoots’ model helps fill a need. 

“They’re building a future audience,” said Terri Dennison, executive director of the Elizabethtown-White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce. 

Kids with family in the area will come back to visit and pay patronage to their former places of employment, Dennison said. They’ll also see that there are job opportunities within the community, which means they can stay.

Burney, a high school senior, hopes to work in agriculture one day. In Bladen County, where more than 180,000 acres of land were used as farms in 2017, the opportunity is certainly there.

Ragan Blackmon, a student at Bladen Community College, rings up an order for Wendy Johnson.

Managing responsibilities

Burney started working at Barefoot Brew in May 2021. She said she had heard that Bo and Kelly Barefoot were good to their employees. 

The Barefoots often find their workers through word of mouth. They ask their current employees to help screen which students would be good coworkers at the coffee shop, managed by Kelly, and the sandwich shop, managed by Bo.  

With two locations and two mobile units, employees at Barefoot Brew have to be responsible, Kelly Barefoot said. She’s not there every hour of the day to watch them. 

There is an extensive menu of coffees, milkshakes, and other concoctions Barefoot Brew employees must learn how to make, as shown on the menu board. Aubree Jacobs is behind the counter.

Jessica Johnson, a freshman at Fayetteville Technical Community College, often works the morning shift, which means opening up the shop, serving customers at the door, taking phone calls and managing orders through the shop’s mobile app and other apps like Doordash. 

If she has a break, Johnson will do homework at the coffee shop. If she doesn’t have enough time to do her school work and extracurriculars, in addition to her work, she’ll ask one of her coworkers to cover her shift. 

The Barefoots use an app called Homebase to schedule and track employee work hours and communicate with their employees. 

It can get tight behind the counter, especially when it’s busy.

The young workers are responsible for notifying the Barefoots of their availability each week. Once the Barefoots make the schedule, then it is the workers’ responsibility to switch shifts with one another in the case of any last-minute conflict. 

“My kids know that’s their responsibility,” Kelly Barefoot said. “That will carry on [to their next jobs].”

Hannah Allison said she really likes the scheduling app. She has been with Barefoot Brew off and on since it opened in April 2020. 

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Allison had to return from her graduate studies at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest to her hometown of Elizabethtown. She had prior coffee shop experience, so she decided to work at Barefoot Brew. 

Aubree Jacobs, left, and Emma McDuffie bring chairs inside.

Two years later, Allison has graduated and is in the process of studying for her licensure in counseling. She needed a full-time job, and the Barefoots offered her one. 

Now Allison is the “coffee shop mom,” she said, taking on a more managerial role with training, office management, social media and an app launch. 

Allison, who has struggled with social anxiety, said her job at Barefoot Brew has increased her confidence and her ability to communicate with people – skills that will be helpful when she becomes a counselor. 

Emma McDuffie, a student at East Bladen High School, pours hot water.

Supportive community

Employing young women like Allison, Burney and Johnson has been integral to the businesses’ success, Kelly Barefoot said. Their grandparents, parents and boyfriends support them by buying coffees and teas during their shifts. 

“The community takes care of the kids,” Kelly Barefoot said. 

And the community takes care of the Barefoots, who moved from Raleigh a few years ago. They started the coffee shop because they asked Elizabethtown residents what they needed. They took over the sandwich shop because the town manager asked them to. 

“They’ve done a lot to make sure the community is aware of them, and they give back to the community,” Dennison said. “People patronize you because they know you’re involved in the community.”

The Barefoots also patronize other local businesses, highlighting their offerings on social media and spreading the word to passersby. As a result, many local businesses return the favor, Dennison said, and place big orders at the Sandwich Shoppe. 

“We just want to be part of that growing community,” Kelly Barefoot said. “It’s a really beautiful thing.”

Kelly Barefoot encourages residents and tourists to stop by any and all businesses in Elizabethtown. “It doesn’t matter why you come, just come,” she said.

Kelly and Bo Barefoot, owners of Barefoot Brew in Elizabethtown, with (from left) lead barista Hannah Allison, and employees Aubree Jacobs, Ragan Blackmon and Emma McDuffie.

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