Natalie Rakes is well on her way to reaching her career goals. She is currently the manager of The Grounds at Garden Living, a specialty coffee shop and gathering place located on Joyce Boulevard in uptown Fayetteville. “My dream is to own a coffee shop,” she says with determination.

Rakes worked as a barista for Onyx Coffee Lab for nearly two years, where she learned the intricacies of the coffee business, from bean cultivation to roasting. Her bosses and owners of Onyx helped her make connections and introduced her to the owner of Garden Living, who wanted to open a coffee shop inside her store. The transition has been a natural fit for Rakes, who has been preparing for this role since her college days.

Rakes attended the College of the Ozarks near Branson, where she benefited from the school’s required work-study program. Splitting her time between studying and working gave her practical business experience that has paid off. “I actually worked at The Keeter Center, which is a restaurant on campus,” she explains. She notes that she was also a radio DJ during her time on campus.

While she was always interested in running a business, Rakes didn’t reach this path via a straight line. She began her studies as a music education major before finding her way. “Everyone seems more passionate about the students than I do,” she remembers thinking. “I’m more excited to decorate the classroom, so this probably isn’t for me,” she adds.

As a student, she finally landed on public relations as the focus for her degree because she liked the variety of business scenarios it touched. In a class that focused on restaurant hospitality, Rakes found a way to apply the studies to her interests. “When they were doing restaurant stuff, I was planning out my coffee shop,” she says.

Going to the College of the Ozarks wasn’t really a conscious choice she made, it’s a choice that runs in Rakes’s family. At the time, she wanted to join her friends at an Arkansas college, but instead followed in the footsteps of her mother, sister and brother. College of the Ozarks was able to provide her with a debt-free college education and give her unique experiences like a free trip to England. In addition, the work study aspect of the program prepared her for multi-tasking in the business world. “Everything I learned in school applies in my job today: customer service, how to treat people, just going above and beyond,” she explains.

Her journey to where she is now was one with lots of learning and finding her passion for coffee. “Falling into Onyx was the coolest thing ever,” she says. She has gone from working in the coffee shop for the first time as a barista to managing a new shop in just a few years.

Once she met with the owner of Garden Living, she knew she was ready for the challenge of managing a shop on her own. Because the owner lives in LA, she needed someone local to get on board and help set up the shop and run it. “It went up really fast,” Rakes says. “It went from a closet-type storage space to an entire tiny coffee shop. It was amazing,” she recalls.

Rakes says that one of her challenges in the business has been taking on everything from managing the shop to planning the menu. With about a year and a half under her belt, she’s got her footing and is continually working to improve her skills. She has learned that the system that works for one place doesn’t necessarily work for another. Taking into account her customer base and workflow are important to meet the unique needs of her customers.

Looking toward the future, Rakes says, “I think the goal will always be to own my very own shop.” Until that day, she is going to continue working on her skills. She’s already working on a new menu, introducing new shop hours and making the current space better. “I definitely want to be different,” she says, understanding that customers have many options to get a cup of coffee. She likes to look at the entire customer experience as more than only drinking coffee.

Rakes has sage advice to give others who are thinking of jumping into the business world. She says that having a good attitude is very important, as is learning to get up and keep trying after failures. To her, the keys to success are being innovative and quick-thinking. “You have to be ready for what comes your way,” she advises.

You can find Natalie Rakes at The Grounds at Garden Living in uptown Fayetteville. Find the shop on Facebook or online at www.shopgardenliving.com.

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