Urban planning alumnus Jessica Schellack builds community—with coffee

by Zoe Linder-Baptie MPP/MCRP ’18                                                             

Located in Highland Park just across the Raritan River from New Brunswick, OQ Coffee Co. has become a popular study spot and pre-class pit stop for the many Bloustein graduate students who live nearby.

Becoming a coffee shop owner may seem a step off the logical career path for an urban planner. But for Jessica Schellack MCRP ’11 and her husband Ben, co-founders of OQ Coffee, their work is not just about brewing socially and environmentally sustainable coffee but also building community.

Originally started as a small operation roasting beans in the Elijah’s Promise kitchen in 2010 while Jessica was a graduate student at the Bloustein School and Ben was working on an advanced degree at Princeton Theological Seminary, OQ Coffee Co. was recently named the “Best Coffee in New Jersey” by Food and Wine magazine.

Jessica Schellack MCRP ’11

Jessica was full of gratitude when she learned of the recognition. “For our shop and roastery to be recognized in this way is not only an affirmation of what we are doing, but also a recognition that we are doing it extraordinarily well. I also feel encouraged as we have strived to build a coffee business that is centered on sustainability, education, community, and excellence. Getting mentioned in Food and Wine indicates those values are not only something many people accept, but really care for and enjoy.”

The shop’s mission, as promoted on their website, is to get people to fall in love with coffee by offering high-quality, fairly sourced coffee, increasing awareness of sustainable coffee practices, cultivating community, and promoting social action.

With an undergraduate degree in Architecture from the University of Michigan, it makes sense that Jessica has always spent time thinking about space and how people relate to the space around them—especially how a building or business will affect those living in the surrounding community. Prior to pursuing her City and Regional Planning degree, Jessica was living in Colorado and working at a third wave coffee roastery.

Speaking as a panelist at the Bloustein School’s Women in Entrepreneurship event in February, she talked about her experience in Colorado and remarked that during this time, she “developed an interest in the relational aspects of coffee.” The owner of the roastery sourced coffee directly, she said, and would go out to meet with the farmers; Jessica was fascinated by this practice and wanted to learn more about the economic and social aspects of coffee.

She worked with the Rutgers Center for Green Building while at Bloustein, which, coupled with the experiences and skills she learned in classes, helped with getting OQ off the ground while still in school. Focusing her MCRP degree on transportation planning, Jessica learned how to read and analyze data and to assess the city’s demographics in order to better understand the community the business would serve.

Jessica (center) and her husband Ben (in red shirt) with staff and patrons at OQ Coffee Co.

Jessica joined the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s highly competitive Leadership Fellows program upon her graduation in 2011 and then went on to work in the capital projects division with PATH, all the while continuing to work with her husband to grow OQ. As the shop—and her family—expanded over the next five years, she left the public sector to be with her family and focus on managing operations, sourcing and brewing socially and environmentally sustainable coffee all the while building community at OQ full time.

So what’s next for OQ coffee? “We have been, and are continuing to look for, opportunities to grow, primarily in locations where we know we can build community around excellent coffee,” said Jessica. “A larger roastery to increase wholesale production and establishing another shop is what we have in mind.  For me, while I wear many hats from day to day, it is at this stage of the process that I am putting on my urban planner hat, to take a really good look at the people in a place and consider how we can serve them well.”