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UNH grad helps open new downtown eatery

James Stevens, 25, graduated from UNH with an English teaching degree in 2014. Today, he can’t be found giving lessons in the classroom, but instead working as the manager of The Spot acai café in downtown Durham, at the same restaurant chain he has been with for six years.

Stevens said he always wanted to be a teacher, but he doesn’t mind that his career has taken a different path. He knows life doesn’t always turn out exactly as you expect.

Before The Spot opened, Stevens worked at The Secret Spot, another acai café on Hampton beach also owned by The Spot’s founder, John Gozzo. A few of Stevens’ friends worked there, so Gozzo pulled him in without a formal interview and the two have been working together ever since.

“I can be proud of the food we put out [at The Spot], because I think it’s quality and not disguised as something else,” Stevens said. He said he sticks around because, “[Gozzo] is a really good guy, and he holds my opinion in high regard.”

Stevens tried to pursue his dream of being a teacher at first, before meeting a few roadblocks that prevented him from moving on with his career. He wanted to take a break from school after graduating, so he hadn’t entered a master’s degree program for teaching. That meant the certification process was much more complicated; he would have to be pre-certified and work for a school before reaching full certification. The problem was he couldn’t find a school that wanted to hire him if he didn’t have a certification.

“I didn’t think UNH explained [the certification process] very well,” he said. “I had to figure out a lot of things for myself.”

That difficulty contributed to Stevens’ full dedication to the development of The Secret Spot in Hampton. After working there for around three years, Gozzo made him the manager, and Stevens decided to move the acai business into the foreground of his career goals.

“The only way [Gozzo] was going to open up [The Spot in Durham] was because I told him that I would go do it with him,” Stevens said. Stevens has become part of the future of the restaurant, and according to him, there are a lot of upcoming possibilities.

“We want to open a restaurant in the town in Hampton, hopefully,” he said. “I’m happy with how [The Spot] is going so far, and where it could go.”

Stevens has also become part of the decision making process, assisting Gozzo with the business in unexpected ways. At one point, Stevens noticed spelling mistakes on Gozzo’s plan for some of The Spot’s decorations, particularly the names and descriptions of the tropical fruits printed in bold letters on the wall.

“I told him, ‘Let me proofread all the things you do so I can at least put my degree to some use,’” Stevens recalled with a chuckle.

When The Spot was being designed, Stevens weighed in on everything from the menu, to the types of tables purchased, to the advertising they used for the restaurant.

He might not currently use his degree for his career very much, but Stevens said he was glad he graduated with his bachelor’s.

“I have a degree that I can use if I need it,” he said. Other skills he developed at UNH have also helped him during his journey in the food service industry; particularly social skills. The college environment helped him develop his behind-the-counter personality.

“I’m normally kind of quiet and shy [outside of work],” Stevens said. “But at work there’s an expectation between a customer and the worker behind the counter that it should be pleasant at the very least.”

Stevens said he enjoys and excels at food service and he encourages other students to find what they excel at after school.

“Try to figure out where your best skillset is and see where it can translate,” he said. “Don’t get discouraged if you don’t get your dream job right away. Keep your options open.”

For English teaching majors, he has a much more specific set of advice: “Try to get certified as soon as possible.”

Even though Stevens’ career as a teacher didn’t work out, he said he is content to keep working with Gozzo and help guide the future of The Spot. “As long as we stay open, I’ll be here.”

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