In 2011, Juanita Michelle Darden wanted to go back to school — but she didn’t want to change her lifestyle to pay for it.
So she opened a coffeehouse — Third Perk Coffeehouse and Wine Bar, to be exact.
“I was an early-40-something professional woman. I was living in the northwest corner of Dayton. There was no specialty coffee in the city proper, not a whole lot of amenities, so I really wanted to create a space where I could gather with my friends, have a good time, all be safe,” she recalled. “The cherry on top would be music that we love.”
Third Perk opened its doors on Fifth Street in 2015.
“It was a dream coming true,” she said. “And then you had people coming in, and they were enjoying the space.”
The coffeehouse was home to a rotation of artists displaying their work, a group of poets hosting open mic events, and a community of entrepreneurs, all working and collaborating over coffee.
“There was one time, maybe at the height of 2017, when I recognized that it really didn’t belong to me anymore,” Juanita said. “They started calling it ‘the people’s coffee house.’ You’ll come down at any given time, and you look in the coffee house, and it’s like, yes, this is such a great example of what our community looks like.”
When the Covid pandemic struck in March 2020, Juanita was already in the midst of tumultuous personal changes.
“I closed 2019 as a divorced woman. I started over, and at the height of Covid, here I am in this barely furnished apartment. And I thought that I would be having carpal tunnel surgery,” she recalled. “There were some mechanical things that needed to happen in our original location. Our lease was up. And it was just the perfect time to say, we’ll stop.”
So when retailers and restaurants reopened after the early Covid shutdowns, Third Perk was gone.
“I had hoped the governor would hold us inside just enough for me to say, hey guys, I’ve got a new space, but that’s not what happened,” Juanita said. “Things just changed, and sometimes things don’t happen the way we want them to.”
Right before the pandemic, Juanita had also expanded and opened a Third Perk location inside the Dayton Mall.
“Lord have mercy, that space just didn’t stand a chance. People didn’t return to the mall,” Juanita said.
She reopened her downtown Dayton store, this time at 146 E. Third St. But many employees of downtown’s larger companies didn’t return to the office right away. And when they did, some found new java options.
“You can’t make it up, you know? We can’t fax our business. You have to have people coming in and spending money often,” she said. “And then we’ve had some corporate giants move into downtown Dayton, and it is a popular corporate giant, and people love it. It’s hard to compete with that.”
In a final blow, Juanita’s mother died in January 2022.
“My mom never really had a chance to soak up Third Perk. Her health was pretty much on the decline as we opened, so she never spent a lot of time in the coffeehouse,” she said. “When she passed — I can turn back around now and say, oh, you stopped. I was places, I was doing things, it looked normal, but now that I look back it’s like, it wasn’t normal. You were not okay.”
Juanita set out to rebuild her business — and she wanted to invite fellow business owners along for the ride.
In May, she dropped the first episode of her new podcast, The Broken Entrepreneur. Each episode, she interviews a different entrepreneur about the stumbling blocks in their business journey, and how they moved forward.
“When I talk about the broken entrepreneur, the real premise of everything is that things can be fixed,” Juanita said. “I want entrepreneurs to know that everybody’s story isn’t Instagram-worthy. Everyone’s story isn’t one of glamour and prestige and millions of dollars. But if we understand how to pivot, refocus, retool, and relaunch, we can experience those successes.”
“When I think back on what people have said about the coffeehouse, it’s like, oh wow, I did that!,” she said. “Since opening at the corner of Third and St. Clair, magic has happened there, too. So the magic continues to happen, and I hope that that corner stays abundantly full as we give this new life to Third Perk.”
I am Juanita Michelle, and I am an entrepreneur.
There’s no one way to be an entrepreneur.
You don’t have to look a certain way, operate in a particular industry, or pursue specific education. You don’t have to grow up in a particular household, or spend your free time nurturing any particular hobbies — entrepreneurs grow from all walks of life.
In this series, entrepreneurs, founders, and small business owners from across the Dayton Region share their individual stories to break down pervading stereotypes about who can or can’t be an entrepreneur.
They proudly declare, “I Am an Entrepreneur” — and you can be, too.