Tony Hudson hails from a long line of Fort Wayne residents who have found creative ways to serve their community. He recalls his grandfather, a former Allen County prosecuting attorney, accepting payments from clients in the form of chickens when they didn’t have cash. And his mother, a longtime Allen County Community Corrections leader, helping to reduce local recidivism rates by creating alternatives to prison.
It was out of this creative thinking that Blue Jacket was born under Hudson's leadership in 2003, working alongside his mother in Community Corrections. Today, Blue Jacket is a separate nonprofit that provides training and opportunities to anyone facing barriers to gainful employment. As an outgrowth of this mission, Hudson and his team at Blue Jacket opened Tall Rabbit Café + Community in December 2022 at 2001 S. Calhoun St. as a social enterprise to provide jobs to Blue Jacket's clients – and anyone seeking experience in the food service industry.
The quality of Tall Rabbit's coffee is not a side note to its mission either. The cafe is not only adjacent to Utopian Coffee's roastery, but also gets regular feedback from Utopian's coveted Director of Coffee and Sales, Jonathon Sepulveda – one of a handful of "Master Coffee Roasters" in the U.S. who has been in the industry for 24 years (and counting). Sepulveda recently moved to Fort Wayne from Los Angeles, CA, and frequently tests roasts at Tall Rabbit, coaching baristas on how to achieve the best brews.
Along with its creative approach to employment and coffee, Tall Rabbit also taps into Hudson's background in fine art. It supports local artists by selling and showing their work and hosting popular monthly poetry slams, open mics and more.
We sat down with Hudson, Executive Director of Blue Jacket, to learn more about the cafe's mission, menu and must-attend events.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your family’s history in the city that led to the creation of Blue Jacket?
TH: I come from a family who served the community in unique ways. My grandfather and great-grandfather were elected prosecuting attorneys, and my mother helped start and ran Allen County Community Corrections for 28 years. They all had a heart for holding people accountable while creatively helping those in the margins.
My mother’s sole mission was to create alternatives to jail or prison and reduce the recidivism of people most likely to return. I was looking for a part-time job while I was adjunct teaching fine art at the University of St. Francis and had the opportunity to work for her. Eventually, my commission became that of creating programs and initiatives to reduce recidivism, predominantly those on home detention, parole, and probation.
Out of that, Blue Jacket, Inc., was born as the most creative solution to help men and women reintegrate society with gainful employment. Blue Jacket has kept its laser focus on employment, but has since widened the net to serve any adult with a barrier to employment.
How did Tall Rabbit Café + Community come about, and what inspired you to create it?
TH: The board and staff leadership created a five-year plan to add more social enterprises to the organization to transitionally hire Blue Jacket clients, as well as begin to generate alternative sources of income. In 2020, Blue Jacket began to investigate intensively a food service enterprise, and the original goal was to create a breakfast and lunch café on the Blue Jacket campus, but to pilot, or pre-launch the café as a coffee shop. We actually feel like we landed on our goal when we thought we were shooting for something bigger. This is going to move many more people into the food service industry who are going to learn the incredible benefit of great customer service and attention to detail.
How would you describe Tall Rabbit Cafe + Community to someone unfamiliar with it?
TH: Many people say this shop feels like home when they walk in. The space is cozy and eclectic with gathering spaces for long private meetings or working on homework. You’ll come to expect friendlier-than-normal customer service with excellent drinks made by baristas under constant training. It is not a sterile, pretentious environment focusing on high-turn rates and sales over people and community.
We exclusively sell Utopian Coffee, roasted in the space adjacent to our coffeeshop. We use Gratitude Catering for our breakfast pastries and lunch sandwiches, local honey from Hudson Garden Market, and local tea from Teajutsu.
We wanted to create an environment post-COVID-19 pandemic that allowed people to gather without fear of restraint in spaces that were not sat in one big open space, packed on top of each other and allowing conversation to be heard at the next table. The pandemic pushed a lot of professionals into remote working environments. We designed the space to cultivate those who want to be in proximity to others to the degree of their own level of comfort.
Tell us about the name Tall Rabbit and its significance.
TH: Big Rabbit, or Tall Rabbit, was the original name of our namesake, Chief Blue Jacket, a Shawnee warrior who fought in battle like a Tall Rabbit. Chief Blue Jacket’s history is definite in this area, most notably fighting with Miami Chief Little Turtle and against General Anthony Wayne. It is thought he adopted the name Blue Jacket because he was also a trader and received a French blue linseed coat.
How has Tall Rabbit grown and evolved since it launched?
TH: Patrons of every age, race and ethnicity walk into the shop, and we feel like this has become a safe place through our various community activities, like our ever-growing poetry slams and open mic events. (We have copies of locally written poetry books available in the shop for you to read and a Community Poetry Book you can contribute to!)
The space has not only become a gathering place for friends and family to meet, but colleagues who want to do business in one of our nooks or our conference room. We use a local caterer who daily delivers sandwiches and breakfast pastries which augment our delicious drinks. We have even created a popular one Saturday per month drink tasting when we reveal our seasonal specials of the month.
Tall Rabbit’s website calls it a “social enterprise designed to transitionally hire” Blue Jacket’s clientele so they can prove their worth in the job market. Do you have any success stories you can share related to this mission so far?
TH: We literally have thousands of stories to share, and I admit that we need to do a better job of sharing of all Blue Jacket successes the last 18 years. I think of Amber, who works at the Tall Rabbit Café presently. She’s hard to miss, as she has this gift to see every single detail in the shop that needs attention. She endured a life of trauma and hardship, turning to drugs which spurned an even more difficult life with addiction, was arrested, which impacted her freedom, parental rights, and life trajectory. We recently celebrated her birthday during a very busy drink tasting event, as well as her five years clean and sober.
Tell us about the café and some of the art and décor that makes it special.
TH: To give homage to our namesake Chief Blue Jacket/Tall Rabbit, we have a borrowed collection from the Garrett Museum of Art of Native American artwork augmenting original fine artwork from local artists telling stories of our clients from our annual Second Chances Art Exhibit. Almost all the furniture has been donated, largely from a huge contribution Frontier Communications. Our soft seating of leather chairs and furniture come from their executive suits, but their café tables were repurposed with a decoupage of newspaper articles of Blue Jacket’s past.
Other furniture includes my family heirlooms, like my great grandmother’s dining room table in one of the nooks, my grandfather’s desk from law school and my mother’s piano that is retrofitted as a condiment area. Our Development Director Amy Shepherd dedicated her parent’s table for one of the nooks, as well. The motive was to create a rustic, masculine and eclectic feel in support of the Chief, but we landed on something different, which feels warmer and cozier.
Tell us more about Tall Rabbit’s events: Poetry slams, open mics, monthly drink testings, etc.
TH: We landed on special events our patrons continued to request. The first Saturday of every month, we highlight up to four special drinks and allow patrons to sample and rate each drink, driving the most popular to recur on the menu. This actually grew out of a desire for our baristas to practice unique drink making.
The Tall Rabbit Café has grown into this creative outlet for so many people. Would you believe that we have a Free Little Art Gallery (FLAG) situated in the window next to our coffee counter where artists can drop off a small piece of work or be inspired by one and take it with them? Artist, teacher, and curator Angela Green installed this FLAG as a means to allow a 2-D or 3-D outlet in a public space.
On the third Saturday of the month we have a local musician, most notably Mike Stone of “Homeby10,” giving a voice to musicians on our tiny event stage who want to debut originals in a non-alcoholic environment. There is so much talent in this city, and with so many ages, it is nice to see support for this in a coffee shop environment.
On the second Thursday of every month from 6-8 p.m. in the evening, our growing poetry slam event allows poets to compete the first hour in a friendly competition amongst poets. Then the second hour is dedicated to an open mic allowing artists and poets for an opportunity of spoken word. We are learning that there are so many incredible poets desiring to participate that we will likely have to add an hour. (Join us for the next poetry slam on Feb. 8 from 6-8 p.m.!)
What are some of your favorite or top-selling café items you’d recommend to guests?
TH: Many people have an affinity for the traditional Italian drinks. We have a tendency to sell a lot of latte’s and chai, brewed teas and breakfast sandwiches, and even our fresh brewed drip coffee. Some regulars request the Gibraltar (similar to a cappuccino with one double shot of espresso and two ounces of steamed milk).
Any pro tips for people who visit the cafe for the first time?
TH: First, there is free street parking next to the coffee shop, but not too many people know the parking lots to the south, east and west next to businesses are available for patron parking, as well.
Second, a lot of people arrive to the café and do not have a chance to sit in one of the five coveted nooks to have a semi-private meeting. You actually can call ahead to have that reserved (at no charge), but we ask for you to do that at least three hours in advance.
Third, we do rent out our barn door room (seating up to eight people) and our conference room (16-25 people, depending on configuration) in the case a group desires to meet for longer periods of time and with bigger groups of people.
What’s next for Tall Rabbit in 2024?
TH: We anticipate a lot of the same in 2024, but realize our regulars would like to be able to purchase more Tall Rabbit Café merchandise, and we will continue to develop. We feel like we struck a chord with patrons who love the coffeeshop and want to continue fine tuning and adapting.
We are going to be diving deep in developing our people, training as social leaders/entrepreneurs. We know balancing the double bottom line (in our social enterprise) of developing our Blue Jacket clients while also generating an income is so incredibly difficult, but crucial. We hope, eventually in 2024 we financially break even.
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