Gather for Good

Published 4:13 pm Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Story by Phyllis Speidell
Photos by John H. Sheally II

Gather your thoughts, gather your friends and gather for good.

Gather, a Western Branch coffeehouse and café, collects all those opportunities in one bright, comfy setting. With sleek subway tile, glass walls, polished concrete floors and plush couches, Gather brings an urban ambience to a busy strip mall on Starmount Parkway, just off Portsmouth Boulevard.

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The soft strains of classical guitars compliment conversations over a wide array of coffees, teas and smoothies. For those hungry for more, there is a menu filled with salads, soups, sandwiches and a selection of dishes portioned to share.

As fresh as the Gather vibe is, the non-profit café’s uniqueness is in its mission — to help customers experience a sense of community while also helping their neighbors.

Eric Newman, a frequent customer and executive director of the Roc Solid Foundation in Western Branch, said, “When you buy a cup of coffee, you are also helping us build hope for kids with cancer.”

How does that happen?

Roc Solid is just one of numerous local non-profits to which the café directs its profits. Not only does Gather contribute financially to Roc Solid’s programs of building playsets for children with cancer and assisting families with stricken children, the café offers the foundation a meeting space.

The H.E.R. Shelter of Portsmouth and Chesapeake benefits from Gather as well. The café stocks its pastry case from Sweet Haven Baked Goods, the workforce development program of the H.E.R. Shelter. Olivia Smithberger, executive director of H.E.R., said, “Gather makes the community better through support and engagement. We have also used their community space for board meetings and regularly meet there when we need a brainstorming session.”
The Justice Initiative of Virginia Beach is another Gather beneficiary. The non-profit Justice Initiative works to prevent and end human trafficking in all of Hampton Roads and throughout Virginia.

Patrick McKenna, co-founder and director of the Justice Initiative, said Gather has been a major financial partner and has also provided meeting space for the group’s planning meetings.

“We often conduct smaller meetings there, because it simply has a great atmosphere for getting work done,” McKenna said.

Gather originated with senior pastors Michael and Megan Brueseke of Community Church. The couple led a team of investors in their vision of creating a gathering place with a positive culture and, through that, strengthening the community. Beyond all the good works, however, it’s Gather’s ambience that seems to draw people. Smithberger’s description of Gather as “fun, friendly and inviting” fits with comments from other regulars who have kept the café busy since it opened in September 2017.

On a recent morning, barista Christian Buchanan greeted guests with a cheerful “It’s a good day for coffee,” as she swirled a signature design on a large cup of smooth latte.

Tiffany Crews stood nearby placing her usual order. She works in a nearby dermatologist’s office and knows the menu options well.

“This is my place to go,” she said. “It’s hard to find a spot that offers vegan options — non meat, non-dairy.”

Sprawled on a nearby couch, 4-year-old Tanner Landes, ear phones in place, enjoyed his music, his smoothie, and a bit of people watching. His mother, Brittany Landes, sat at a table talking with real estate agent Ashley McDougal about the possibilities of settling in the Western Branch/Driver area.

McDougal, who lives in Driver, often sets up meetings at Gather.

“From Driver, this is very central with a lot of food and drink options,” she said. “It’s a good place to meet, very clean and you never feel rushed.”

It’s not unusual to see tables of one or two children, heads bent over workbooks as their mothers coach them through their homeschooling assignments. Dr. Matt Wilson, a Navy orthopedist stationed at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, may be a couple of decades older than the schoolchildren, but he, too, sat absorbed in a book, feet up and relaxed.

“I come in once or twice a week,” Wilson said. “This is a good place to come, away from your nomal four walls, to get some work done. People come in here with their laptops and enjoy.”

The laptop crowd usually sits in generously wide chairs at single tables lining the walls, focusing on their computer screens, cell phones and beverages.

The ambience wafts outdoors on the aroma of coffee to tables and chairs scattered around two sides of the building. A warm day found Stephanie Shannon at a table with her laptop. About a year ago, she heard about Gather from a friend. The café is close to her daughter’s school and to Shannon’s business in Western Branch and a favorite stopping place for her.

“It’s a homey spot,” she said “Very peaceful here.”

As the folks at Gather might agree, “When people gather for good, the world is a better place.”