A short walk from Main Street down Washington, just beyond the NRTA’s Greenhound Building and before the AAN Ceclia Joyce & Seward Johnson Gallery, is a center of island entrepreneurship known as The Handlebar Cafe.
Six years ago, when owners Jason and Courtney Bridges first opened The Handlebar, they thought it would take two to three years to implement their vision of a community space. “It happened the first year… We wanted to create an environment that felt good as soon as you walked in…where you could meet someone you didn’t know and become friends. We try to make the Handlebar as inclusive as possible…a smile for everyone.”
In this community space disguised as a coffee shop, guests can order freshly brewed coffee (plain or fancy, hot or iced), along with familiar and exotic tea drinks, snacks, and light bites before they settle onto one of the comfy corner chairs, at the long table, on a bench on the sunny front patio, or in the “secret garden” out back.
There’s always something new at Handlebar Cafe. In addition to constantly refining their coffeemaking techniques, they have brought in food and beverage items for children, were among the first on-island to eliminate plastic straws, and now offer glass water bottles. They like to partner with other island entrepreneurs, such as artist Meredith Hanson, whose art adorns their paper cups. And they are donating 100 percent of the purchase price of their “Hugs, Handshakes, and High Fives” mugs to Fairwinds, Nantucket’s counseling center.
In addition to the coffee and other refreshment, people come to the Handlebar to gather with friends, work quietly on laptops, or to hold a small business meeting. They come to the Handlebar to view an art exhibit, attend a workshop on public speaking, to meet the Clean Team on Saturday mornings, or for one of Jason’s Dads & Donuts gatherings (inspired after the birth of Eloise, Jason and Courtney’s newest adventure). The Bridges try to accommodate anyone looking for a gathering space that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to hold an event.
You’d think that running a coffee shop on Nantucket Island would be all consuming, but both Bridges seem to have unlimited energy. In addition to running their Handlebar Cafe, Jason and Courtney started and still operate Nantucket by Bike, a popular bicycle tour company. Courtney spent three years as Executive Director of Small Friends on Nantucket and now serves as Executive Director of the Artists Association of Nantucket. Jason runs Social Bridges Consulting (which he founded in 2011), was Public Outreach Manager for the Town of Nantucket, and currently serves on the Nantucket Select Board.
In November 2017, after presenting a TEDx talk at Wabash College about “Practicing Emotional Intelligence,” Jason began to produce Bridges to Leadership podcasts designed to teach Emotional Intelligence. “I like to talk, so audio made sense to me.”
Defined as the ability to be “aware of, control, and express emotions, and to handle interpersonal relationships judiciously and empathetically,” EQ is thought to be key for personal and professional success. Jason explained how he became aware of the need to teach this skill. “Nine years ago I hired an intern [for Nantucket by Bike] through a program at my college. It turned into life skills coaching with the student: you can learn the business skills in classes, but the EQ skills are never taught.” Now he and Courtney offer an “EQ Bootcamp” to their interns, and they include this training for coffee shop employees.
“Through the bike tours and the coffee shop, I can help mentor and develop more people…that’s what gets me up in the morning.” That and a good cup of coffee. When asked how he juggles all of his responsibilities—two thriving businesses, fatherhood, politics, and podcasts—he simply replied “Everything I do I love…and I’ve learned how to delegate well.”
With his Bridges to Leadership podcasts, Jason shares what he’s learned and what he teaches: people skills through relationship building, storytelling, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and empathy. In his first episode, he talks candidly about a traumatic experience at age 16 that put him on his current path. In the following episodes (15 so far), he tackles a variety of subjects that include active listening and body language, small talk strategies, leadership, mistakes as opportunities, and Fatherhood Friday interviews. Most are 6 to 10 minutes, with a few longer interview podcasts.
Jason Bridges defines leadership as “walking through the door and instead of thinking here I am, think there you are.” At the top of his website jasonmbridges.com, is his motto that sums up his philosophy well: “Be interested, not interesting.”