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For this South senior, it's all about coffee shops

Mary Jane Feetham's love of lattes inspired her to devote her project to coffee shops and their influence on societies

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fifth in series on senior projects, those daunting hurdles some students must pass before they graduate from high school.

Coffee has fueled plenty of year-end study sessions and last-minute research papers for graduating seniors, but for Mary Jane Feetham, coffee was her final project.

The South Medford High School senior turned her love of lattes into a guidebook of Southern Oregon coffee shops and a report on the social and environmental effects of increasing demand on coffee-growing countries.

The guidebook and paper were part of her senior project, which requires at least 35 hours of work outside the classroom, a minimum eight-page paper and a presentation before a panel of community judges.

Starting in November, Feetham visited more than 70 coffee shops. She hit drive-throughs for quick cups and coffeehouses that tempt customers to linger. She traveled from Brookings to Hood River, but most of her targets were in the Rogue Valley.

— The Medford resident made multiple visits to most shops so she could get a full picture. Sometimes she ordered the same drink twice to test consistency; sometimes she ordered different drinks to put workers through their paces.

She quizzed shop owners, managers and employees about what brands of coffee, syrups and machines they used; how often fresh-roasted beans were delivered; where the baked goods were from; what kind of training their workers received.

I actually got kicked out of one shop for asking questions, Feetham said. The owner said the market was just too competitive and I might be a snitch for another business.

In her guide, Feetham gave each shop scores for customer service and product quality and noted price ranges. Then she wrote a brief description of the decor, menu and atmosphere.

She initially planned to rank the shops and choose a best coffee shop, but she came to appreciate variety.

They all have different aspects, she said.

She recommends Pony Espresso in Jacksonville for an authentic Italian experience, Evo's Java House in Ashland for a shot of social activism and punk energy, and Espresso Mellelo in downtown Medford for a quick, quality cup. Her personal favorite is the Good Bean Co. in Jacksonville, where coffee, baked goods, music, art and atmosphere come together to meet her coffeehouse ideal.

To learn how to make coffee drinks so she could judge shops, Feetham worked alongside a family friend who has been a barista for six years. She also watched training videos on the Internet. She even got her own espresso machine.

The techniques to froth milk took forever to learn to do without scalding it, she said.

Behind the counter, she learned the heat doesn't all come from the espresso machine ' a line of coffee-crazed customers can make a junior barista sweat.

I was trying to learn the exactly perfect way to do it, but I understand the time constraints, too, she said.

Feetham's project wasn't just about sitting in cafes with her hands wrapped around a mug, though.

Her research project tracked how surging demand for trendy espresso drinks shifted coffee production from small farms tucked into the forest to huge, open plantations, where worker wages are low and environmental problems have emerged. Now consumers are beginning to seek coffee that is certified as fair-trade, environmentally sensitive or organic.

Drinking coffee on a daily basis, you as a consumer can make a difference in the lives of farmers, she said.

Feetham said she's not sure whether she will try to publish the guide or make the information available on-line.

Feetham ultimately wants to make a difference in people's lives as a drug and alcohol counselor. She would also like to record stories of personal growth as a biographer. She plans to take a year after high school to travel, then enroll at Humboldt State University.

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South Medford High School senior Mary Jane Feetham created a guide to coffee shops in Southern Oregon for her senior project. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell