Wendy Lopez fosters the idea that everyone deserves a chance to grow
Wendy Lopez’s employees at Endiro Coffee call her “Mom” and she is OK with that. / Photo by Brigette Burgman.
Wendy Lopez was a stay-at-home mom with three kids before she separated from her husband and needed to get back into the workforce.
So she got a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Aurora, Ill., in 2012 and set about trying to work her way into the kitchen as a cook. She moved into prep work, learned the fryers, making pizza and the salad station.
But when the pandemic hit, she needed a new gig. So she took a position in late 2020 as a short-order cook at Endiro Coffee, a coffeehouse and restaurant that was closed temporarily for dine-in business but still doing takeout orders online.
Little did she know at the time how that move would change her life.
Endiro is a “tree-to-cup” concept based in Uganda with a mission: The goal is to create a sustainable future for coffee growers by removing the middleman, allowing family farmers to earn more and invest in their communities, but also giving young people a job where they can learn new skills and gain confidence.
It’s a certified B Corp., and the chain has 14 locations in Uganda and one in Kenya. The menu has a lot more than just coffee, with dishes ranging from breakfast to upscale sandwiches and Ugandan street-style omelets known as Rolex.
Co-CEO Cody Lorance opened the first U.S. outlet of Endiro in his hometown of Aurora in 2017, hoping the concept would take root and grow.
For Lopez, the mission immediately resonated. Not only was she working to support her own family, she enabled others to do the same in far-off Africa.
“We’ve had people who work at some the coffeeshops in Uganda come here and hearing some of their stories it makes you like, ‘Oh, it’s bigger than just us.’ There’s a bigger purpose,” said Lopez.
And part of that bigger purpose at Endiro is building a culture of respect for team members, she said.
“It’s definitely a different environment here in the way they treat you,” said Lopez. “Here, you have a voice. They’re willing to give you the opportunity to actually experiment as a cook and put stuff you came up with on the menu.”
That salsa on Endiro’s menu, for example? That’s Lopez’s recipe. “It’s a simple Mexican salsa, something I’ve made my whole life as a Latina,” she said.
Lopez also created a dish she calls biscuit balls but on the menu are called Mandazi in the Morning because they are similar to a Ugandan snack involving fried dough stuffed with house-made bacon jam, cheddar and jalapeno, served with eggs and a bechamel sauce. “It’s delicious,” she said proudly.
Only about three months into the job, Lopez said her boss asked her a question no one had ever asked her before:
“My boss said, ‘How would you feel about becoming a manager? Do you have leadership skills?’ And I’m like, I never thought about it,” she said. “But I felt if I could get trained correctly, I could be a really good manager.”
Turns out she was right.
Lopez became a general manager about a year ago. She often still works four or five shifts in a week as a chef—sometimes while training other cooks—but she has mastered every position, from barista to server. She also runs procurement, scheduling, hiring, training, event planning and community engagement.
It’s a hectic schedule, she admits, and many on her staff of about 20 are young and still in school, so she tries to give them leeway to take exams, go to graduation ceremonies or attend the prom. “I try to accommodate their schedules to give them a life outside Endiro,” she said.
From her own children, ages 14, 12 and 7—her youngest has autism and has some extra education needs—Lopez said she has learned that everyone learns differently. At Endiro, that translates to “everyone deserves a chance to grow.”
Small businesses like Endiro can’t really compete by offering higher wages, she said. But Lopez tries to recruit workers who are not just “hungry for money” but also those who are hungry to learn or experience new things. Cross training is encouraged, and the open-kitchen concept gives team members an opportunity to get immediate positive feedback from guests.
“You can hear them tell you, ‘Oh, your food was amazing, your eggs were cooked perfectly,’” said Lopez. “You don’t get a chance to hear that when you’re in the back of the kitchen.”
Lorance said things were looking “pretty scary” for Endiro after the pandemic and he had to set some pretty tough sales goals for Lopez as she moved into the GM role. But she rose to the challenge, he said.
In fact, for the first quarter this year, the store has hit its daily sales goals, which were the highest since the concept opened in 2017.
“I have to give Wendy a lot of credit for that,” he said. “I’m looking forward to opening new locations now that I have Wendy. Her next step is to become a district manager. I’ll create the district around her. She’s that good.”
At the restaurant, staffers often refer to Lopez as “Mom,” though she’s only 32. She doesn’t mind.
“I’m not really close with my own family, so hearing that someone feels like I am part of their family makes me feel good about myself,” she said. “This place has become my home. This is where I belong and this is where I feel I can make a difference. It’s not just a job.”
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