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Coffee shop and arts nonprofit brew co-working partnership

An entrepreneur launches a business to turn a passion into a career. Now imagine starting a business and then partnering with another to indulge a second passion.

That’s the opportunity that came to Autumn and Lukes Pruitt of Omaha when the couple opened their second Bliss Bakery and Aromas Coffeehouse. The Benson-area bakery-coffeehouse combo is also home to the 402 Arts Collective, a nonprofit organization that teaches music and art to children.

The co-working arrangement between the Pruitts and Benjamin Shafer, the nonprofit’s executive director, creates a synergy that boosts the success of both the coffeehouse and the Arts Collective.

When the music venue isn’t in use, Bliss and Aromas has additional seating for customers. And when aspiring musicians and artists fill the space for lessons or an all-ages show is scheduled, Arts Collective customers’ need for food and drink adds to the Pruitts’ bottom line.

Autumn Pruitt, the owner of the business, knew at an early age that the bakery business was in her blood — inspired in part by her grandfather’s career as a baker. Her husband, meanwhile, works part-time at the coffeehouse and bakery in addition to his job as a worship arts pastor for a West Omaha church. The combination of baking and the arts – and pitch-perfect timing – solidified the business partnership.

“Initially, we were just champions of what the 402 was doing,” she said. “We think that teaching children music and art is valuable. And partnering with the North Omaha community on projects is fantastic.”

The 402 Arts Collective has been a nonprofit organization for more than three years, operating out of satellite locations and musicians’ and artists’ homes until the organization bought and renovated its current location in Benson near 60th and Maple streets in 2012.

“Little did we know that the 402 was looking for a coffeehouse,” Pruitt said. “They talked to others that weren’t interested, because there was no opportunity for a drive-through. So when they heard about us, we knew this could be a good partnership. We like that we can help students do showmanship and be performers and improve their craft while providing a family-friendly venue for folks in the area.”

Brewing a better brand

Pruitt opened the first Bliss Bakery in Omaha’s Old Market four years ago. Then, 18 months ago, the couple purchased the next-door Aromas location the Pruitts had been subleasing. They’ve worked to rebrand the business and turn the bakery-coffee shop combination into a popular Old Market fixture. The partnership with the 402 Art Collective in the Benson location began in October 2013.

A key part of the brand building, Autumn Pruitt said, is “understanding what we are and what we are not.”

A Scooters or a Starbucks coffee shop succeeds by serving as many customers as possible each day. An independent coffeehouse like Aromas, Pruitt said, is more about building relationships with customers and creating an environment where people want to work, study and socialize.

Part of the relationship-building involves Aromas and the 402 Collective renting their combined space for social gatherings, such as weddings, parties, bridal showers, graduation gatherings and business meetings.

“We offer space, and we offer an experience,” Pruitt said. “Exceptional coffee and exceptional baked goods are a part of that, but anything we sell you can get somewhere else. So we set ourselves apart from the industry by asking, ‘What do we do better than anyone else? Where do we want to stake our claim?’ ”

The answer, she said, is that a coffeehouse like Aromas provides a “third” space apart from work and home where customers feel comfortable starting a conversation and getting invested in people’s lives.

“I think it is important in a culture that’s more invested in social media to maintain that human contact,” she said.

The two C’s of co-working

Pruitt’s advice for others seeking a co-working arrangement falls into two categories: cooperation and communication. Constant communication about topics such as scheduling, what to charge and how to work with customers continue to be key to the partnership’s success.

As far as starting a new business, she recommends being able to chart a course and then adjust it to take advantage of new opportunities, just like when the chance to partner with the 402 Arts Collective presented itself.

“By no means could I foresee the future, and there have been a million surprises along the way,” she said. “But that’s all part of it. You need to make sure your business is a living organism that adjusts to change. You can’t always be what your business plan was two years ago because circumstances have changed.”