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I am a Hudson Valley Parent: Melanie Collins

Brewing up love in her community

Melanie Collins looks at the key concepts she and husband Jerrod Lang are bringing to their Blacc Vanilla Coffee Shop in downtown Newburgh as a gift for her three children and her niece. It is a testament to her own mother's sense of caring, as well as her departed father's penchant for mixing a bit of personality into all he did as a restaurant owner for years.

Blacc Vanilla, located across the street from Hudson Valley Parent's office, has already become known as much for its coffee and lunches as its cozy, homey atmosphere.

A long time coming
"On one of our first dates Jerrod told me he'd be buying this building one of these days," Collins says with a laugh. "We are both coffee snobs and we had this idea for building a place to bring people together in a warm environment, a place where everyone is welcome."

Because Blacc Vanilla is located in a neighborhood not known for its business, Collins and Lang were surprised at how quickly things took off with their labor of love. It's not every day, after all, that over 500 people show up for a coffee shop opening, even when Decora 3000, the Funk Junkies and Grammy Award winner Corey Glover are on hand as entertainment.

"It was a challenge. We bought the building and did all of this with no loans or grants," she says of the four years of renovations it took to get everything up and running. "It was all family and a lot of living paycheck to paycheck. Now, to see it all done, is very powerful."

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A family affair
Collins' works as a flight attendant for private Word Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) flights; Lang works as a detective in Rockland County. Together the couple has three kids - nine-year-old Chase, seven-year-old Kaylee and two-year-old Kayden. Collins' niece Layla has been like a daughter to her for most of her 14 years, and has lived with them (along with her mom, Collins' sister) throughout the past few years as Blacc Vanilla took shape.

This represents the first full-fledged business either parent has run. Collins says that much of her inspiration and sense for doing things right comes from her father's soul food restaurant in Troy, and what it was like to be part of a family business at a young age.

"Running a business like this is definitely a team effort. My sister has been a big part of it; our mother lives in Troy but drives down here every time we need a babysitter or an extra cook... even when she was undergoing cancer treatments," she says. "You know that statement about how 'It takes a village?' We have a village. My aunt and uncle, our kids, are all part of this."

Heart in the business, a foot in the food
Embracing all elements of a family and neighborhood is key to what Blacc Vanilla is, Collins adds, noting how kids are as welcome as the city's mayor or state Secretary of State, both of whom have visited.

"Some days my kids have aprons on," she says. "During our soft opening in September Kaylee, all of seven, got choked up and turned to Jerrod and me to say, 'Oh my god, look at all the people in our coffee shop. It's so beautiful!' She knew how hard we had worked."

Collins notes how her father used to tell her that as an owner of a business, you have to put yourself into it every day; that people might say they came for the food, or the drink, but "most importantly they come for you." She adds that although she is not a religious person, everyone feels that hard-working man's
presence in the new place.

"As he liked to put it, he's putting his foot in the food," she adds with a laugh. "My father, he's here. Just look at the way our food took off. That's Daddy's touch."

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Good attracts good
When asked about her kids and beloved niece, Collins describes each in terms of their athletic, academic and personality attributes. There's love in every word.

This proud mom and wife speaks about how, "what we're doing is attracting people because of its warmth, its authenticity. It's all about being true to what we want our kids to be: good people attract good people, you see, and there's a yearning these days to be around what is truly good. What we're doing isn't just about diversity but about community, about what a neighborhood is supposed to be. That's something we've always wanted, something I had as a kid and that
I want for our kids."

Blacc Vanilla is located at 197 South St., Newburgh. 561-0401

Paul Smart is a father who writes for a variety of publications in the Hudson Valley. He lives in Catskill.

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