Of the many advantages that local, independent businesses have over the chains and boxes of our contemporary consumer culture, the one factor above all others that will always make them stand out is personality. We’re not just talking about a smiling face behind the counter or friendly customer service; we’re talking about how local businesses are a reflection of the people who run them. While corporations use focus groups and market research to “create” a brand, a successful independent business owner knows that he or she is the brand. Jen Hogan, owner of Hands On Minds On Children’s Art Studio and Café Terra on Center Street in Rutland applies that principle everyday.
An Ohio native, Hogan attended Ohio State University. After graduating, she began to feel the urge to get back to her artistic roots. From a young age, she had always been passionate about art, and finally decided to find a way to pursue it professionally. It was also around this time that she realized that she wanted to teach. It only seemed natural to combine the two.
In the mid-1990s, Hogan came to Vermont with her future husband (a Rutland native) to attend Castleton State College, where she studied art and education. The next several years were spent teaching K-12 art in Ohio, and eventually, back in Vermont.
After having her second child, Hogan decided that she wanted to find work with more flexible hours. A friend suggested she start a children’s art studio in her home. It quickly became apparent that she would need more space. Soon, she was checking out locations in Downtown Rutland.
In 2005, Hogan opened Hands On Minds On Children’s Art Studio at 69 Center Street. Offering art classes to children grades pre-K through 2, the studio initially occupied only one corner of its current space, but soon grew to encompass half of the building’s first floor. Hogan welcomed the transition from the residential to a downtown setting. “It definitely makes you feel more connected to the community,” she said, “and gives you more exposure.”
Observing Hogan at work in the classroom, you can tell that she’s in her element – an attentive and patient instructor who relishes in letting her students find their own way and express themselves creatively. “Children are so uninhibited with their art,” she says of her students, “They are always in the moment. It’s what makes working with them so enjoyable.”
Indeed, Hogan prizes the developmental benefits of art saying, “It’s such an important skill to learn at a young age. It’s all about communication. You’re giving them a skill, and even if they don’t grow up to be an artist, they are learning how to express themselves, and that’s something they will keep with them for the rest of their lives.”
While running a children’s art studio was a fulltime job, Hogan was beginning to look beyond her current business – namely, right next door to 67 Center Street. “I could see something in there every time I walked by,” she said of the space once occupied by A Teacher’s Closet, which had been sparking Hogan’s imagination for some time.
Café Terra, opened in May 2008. Hogan characterizes the decision at the logical natural step. “Sixty-seven Center Street was an opportunity too close not to explore,” she explained, “My entrepreneurial mind was bubbling so I devised what would work well with my existing business, and jumped. It was a quick jump, but I believe a good one.”
Hogan cited a simple motivation to open the café was her desire to have “really good” coffee close to where she worked. She soon realized that the parents of her students might like the same. “I was already serving the kids with the studio. The café was a way to serve their parents and families.” The addition pottery painting in the café was an idea that Hogan had seen successfully attempted in other places, and was confident that the activity would be a nice complement enticing both families and other creative types.
Of all the new experiences that came with opening a coffee shop in the Rutland, the one that stands out the most for her is the clientele. “I didn’t expect the quality of people,” she said of her customers. Spend some time people watching and sipping coffee in the café, and you will see what Hogan means. From business professionals looking for a mid-morning pick-up to tables of families painting mugs to the “coffee eclectics” – as Hogan calls them – who spend their time talking music or politics, or just quietly reading or writing, Café Terra has a little bit of everything.
More than anything, the café has in Hogan’s mind helped to build community. “I’m in a good neighborhood,” she said of her location on the eastern end of Center Street. “I’m happy I’ve gotten to know a lot of the people who work and live around here.”
To be sure, Hogan views community involvement to be an integral part of her business. She is a key organizer in the annual Long Trial Festival as well as an active volunteer in a number of other community-based organizations such as Sustainable Rutland and Local First Vermont and events like the monthly Art Hops.
Hogan’s commitment to the community extends to her menu. She is an avid supporter of local food producers, and sources as much locally as she can. “I want to be able to share with my customers a collection of the community’s talents,” Hogan explained. And share she does. From coffee by the Vermont Coffee Company to homemade soups from Constantinos to pastries and baked goods from Baba à Louis as well as home bakers, Hogan provides a broad selection of local goods. Local musicians are also featured every Friday night, and the walls are teeming with local artwork (the café features a new artist every month).
Looking back on the arc of her business, Hogan is pleased with how it has evolved. “I can’t imagine not having the studio without the café, or vice versa,” she says noting that the two have developed a symbiotic relationship. Indeed, the sum of what she has created has become greater than its parts.
Expressed: 5 Questions for Jen Hogan
Jen Hogan of Hand On Minds On Children’s Art Studio and Café Terra in Rutland sits down with The Express’ Jim Sabataso for some rapid-fire Q & A.
Jim Sabataso: First question: What’s your favorite color?
Jen Hogan: That changes all the time for me-like every 2 to 3 years. Right now, I’m stepping out of my green phase, and getting back into blues. I really like white right now, too. Boring, right?
JS: Well, white comprises all colors, right? So I guess we’ll count that.
JS: Question dos: Who’s your favorite artist?
JH: Wasilly Kandinsky, [children’s book illustrator] David Wiesner, and Moby. And if we’re talking classics, Botticelli.
JS: Question the third: What do you like to do outside of work?
JH: I love being outdoors, surrounded by trees-hiking, camping, anything that gets me out in the fresh air.
JS: OK, here’s the deep one: What’s your most memorable artistic experience?
JH: So many. Recently, I created a piece called “My Truce” made from graphite and gouache. It was a very meaningful process.
JS: Final question: If you were a coffee drink, what would you be?
JH: White chocolate latte.
JH: Isn’t that your job?