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White House honor comes as vet's business totters

  • Article by: EMERY P. DALESIO
  • Associated Press
  • August 26, 2014 - 4:40 PM

DURHAM, N.C. — After a decade of being fired or quitting jobs in his struggle to adjust to civilian life, former Marine Corps sniper Matt Victoriano started his own coffee shop, vowing to employ struggling vets like himself.

But even as he headed to Washington on Tuesday to be honored at the White House for his entrepreneurial drive, Victoriano was preparing to close his 7-month-old business, a testament to the difficulty of being a small business owner — especially one with a mission.

"I'll tell them the way it is. I'll plan on telling the truth," he said while driving toward the capital. "It isn't going to go over too well in Washington."

Victoriano is one of 10 veterans or their supporters being honored as "Champions of Change" for "continuing to serve our country through their successful small businesses and nonprofits that create jobs, spur economic growth, and help their communities," the White House said in a news release. Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill Biden, is scheduled to speak at the Wednesday ceremony.

But the survival of Intrepid Life Coffee & Spirits will put to the test the motto of "improvise, adapt, overcome" that Victoriano learned in the Marines.

Victoriano said he opened the veteran-friendly coffee shop, which also hosts bands and sells alcohol, by borrowing a little money from family and loading up debt on his credit cards. The venue, in the downtown of this former cigarette-manufacturing city, sits in a newly renovated, street-level space with high ceilings. Patrons can walk in and park their bicycles just inside the front door, then squeeze out a set of chin-ups on the overhead bar before ordering drinks.

It gained immediate media attention both for its style and its mission.

But business struggles set in. Victoriano said he didn't do enough marketing and revenue crashed this summer. His mission of employing as many veterans as possible, who "all have their own issues," made things worse.

"It's been a struggle training them and working with them," said Victoriano, adding that they've coped with the same trials returning from combat as he did. "Sometimes they just won't show up, they'll be late or they'll just disappear and not communicate."

Victoriano announced two weeks ago that the business was closing and had to empty the space by Sept. 7.

Then he issued an online appeal for $27,000 by Sept. 6 so the business could catch up on overdue rent and make improvements, the appeal said. By Tuesday, donations had hit 25 percent of the goal. Victoriano said he'd take none of it if the target wasn't reached.

Building owner Aaron Averill said he wasn't sure how the White House honor would affect the coffee house's future.

"To the extent that any publicity would help his business be successful, that would be great. I don't really know how that factors in. That's a great honor obviously, recognizing his courage to go do this in the business world," Averill said. "I don't know how that affects the bottom line of a retail business."

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