Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Education

A coffee expert and minister, Barnie "Phil" Jones takes his brand of success to Hillsborough Education Foundation

WEST TAMPA

Barnie Philip Jones Jr. starts his day with a large black coffee, preferably a "low acid, full body" blend from Indonesia or Papua New Guinea.

Faith, purpose and caffeine energize the ordained Presbyterian minister and coffee industry legend who was named president of the Hillsborough Education Foundation in mid January.

In his new "pulpit," based in the historic El Centro Español de West Tampa, the former college chaplain returns to his lifelong mission: helping youth succeed.

That and brewing a perfect cup of coffee.

The fifth-generation Floridian founded Barnie's Coffee & Tea Co., in Orlando in 1980, growing the chain from one to 150 stores before selling to Sara Lee in 1998. During his tenure as president of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, he saw the group grow into the largest coffee organization in the world.

After a few years developing a Colorado vacation home community, Jones, 64, bought Barnie's back, then resold it and spread the word that he was available to work in the nonprofit world once again.

"Barnie's wasn't as much fun the second time,'' said Jones, who goes by "Phil" and is 6 feet 7. He finds percolating ideas to fund foundation initiatives, such as student scholarships and teacher grants, much more exciting these days.

"Public education is the foundation of who we are in America,'' he told Tampa Bay Times reporter Amy Scherzer during an interview discussing how his robust blend of business acumen and theology training might keep kids in school.

You, your wife and two grown daughters attended Orlando public schools. What can the foundation do as public education budgets are slashed, teachers are often bashed and students become detached?

Public education started our middle class and is driving the success of our economy. Elected officials need to get serious about funding education properly. Florida is No. 48 or 49 or 50; we should be No. 1. As a state full of retirees, who in the world is going to pay for our retirement?

Teachers have been transformative in my life. It's a noble profession and they're not paid enough. People who demonize teachers don't know what they're talking about.

We have 215 students on Florida Prepaid College plans and 96 mentors. My dream is 1,000 kids and 1,000 mentors by proactively identifying kids in middle school and aligning community time and money. It's as life-changing for the adults as for the kids.

You have degrees in education and theology, and you once ran a youth ministry in California. Does your ecumenical training apply to your work at the foundation?

Barnie's corporate philosophy — basically, to care for the product, the customer and the team — translates my religious feelings to a holistic approach that applies here.

In the mid '70s, I ran one of the hottest discos in Los Angeles. We got 500 Chicano, black and Anglo kids a night — three distinct groups — but everyone agreed the disco was neutral territory. The crime rate dropped every time the disco opened. I still do the Saturday Night Fever dance at weddings.

Before that, I was the director of a coffeehouse in an Orlando church to keep college kids and street people away from speed, LSD and other drugs.

Was working in that coffeehouse the genesis of your love of coffee?

No, I never drank coffee until grad school when I started drinking a lot to study. I had gotten to be a gourmet coffee hound and I was looking for something to do when I grew up. Nobody in Orlando was doing it. Folgers or Maxwell House was it.

Barnie's was the overnight success that took three years. I was the sole employee when I opened the first store in Winter Park. We grew with the tremendous growth of regional malls. We were in every mall that opened in Florida in the '80s. Yearly sales were just under $60 million. In peak season, I had 2,000 employees.

You've climbed 18 of Colorado's mountains, 14,000 feet or higher — between whitewater rafting and skiing trips. And someday you're planning to climb the other 36 mountains for a "grand slam." Won't you miss such challenges in the meantime?

This Florida flat-lander loves the mountains, but Tampa is paradise in the wintertime. I feel a sigh of relief to be home. The job that brought me back to make a difference in kids' lives is a match made in heaven.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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