Cherita Rice understood the plight of refugees at an age most aren’t aware they exist.
She’s a native of the unique community enclave of Clarkston, Ga., where thousands of refugees settled and built new lives.
“All my friends were refugees,” she says, hailing from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, all over the world.
The experience led her to travel overseas, settling for a time in India where she and her husband Michael worked in the coffee industry and ultimately returned to the U.S. Through it all, she never lost the desire to help refugees like those she’d grown up with—a passion her husband shared.
And so, in 2015, the Mad Priest was born. The Chattanooga business now includes a coffee wholesale company, coffee house and espresso and cocktail bar. It was built around the hiring and support of refugees.
The name contains its purpose, derived from a scene in The Count of Monte Cristo in which the “Mad Priest” gives the protagonist, despondent in prison, reason to hope and necessary skills for a new start. The couple opted to launch a business rather than forming a nonprofit, because they saw learning job skills and achieving gainful employment as the key to refugees’ success in America.
“We wanted to build a social enterprise,” Cherita says.
Although designed for profitability, the Rices started the company to be refugee-friendly, work with Bridge Refugee Services Associate Director Marina Peshterianu to create a company that met their needs. That meant putting locations on the bus line, offering a living wage and including English language and job skills training as part of employee benefits.
Tariq, a refugee from Sudan, was Mad Priest’s first employee. As they prepared to launch the business, he helped clean and paint.
“He was such a hard worker,” Cherita says. “He would ride the bus. He was never late. He never called in sick.”
Tariq is now the company’s production manager.
Other refugee employees followed including David, who had to learn to count money on the job; Ahmed, who went on to work at another restaurant and Aziza, “whose smile brightened the room.”
Mad Priest has supported refugees in other ways as well, for instance, hosting an “evening in Iraq” event featuring dishes cooked up by Achmed and his parents, Wahab and Jinan. Wahab serves on Bridge’s board of directors. The Mad Priest has also hosted awareness and advocacy events for Bridge and is a strong supporter of World Refugee Day.
Recently, the company received the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce 2019 Diversity & Inclusion Ally award for serving up “a hefty dose of social responsibility with their beverages,” according to the Chamber’s website.
“Creating a company where refugees are welcomed and supported in their journey to self-sufficiency is so important,” Cherita says. “Companies like Chobani have been a huge inspiration to us with hiring & training resettled refugees, and I hope many other businesses follow suit.”