‘This is it. This is what I’m cut out to do.’
When Kathy and John Beebe came to Kalamazoo, there was no Water Street Coffee Joint.
Biggby didn’t exist yet. Starbucks didn’t arrive in Michigan until 1997.
They were just “two crazy kids” who came to town to serve high-end coffee.
They were met with skepticism. People would laugh, “Ha ha. How many cups of coffee are you going to have to sell to make rent?” says Kathy.
“Depends how good the coffee is,” she would reply.
Kathy is proud to report that not only can you pay rent selling cup after cup after cup of coffee, espresso, lattes, cappuccinos, americanos, mochas and more — you can sustain the business, especially with a tight kitchen that cranks out house-made pastries, soups and sandwiches that lure customers as much as the caffeine does.
Caffe Casa opened in January 1993 and is still in the same location on the Kalamazoo Mall, where the ambiance comes from its longevity, the paintings from local artists on the walls, and dozens of thriving plants that bring the cafe to life from the inside out.
It hasn’t always been easy — especially during a pandemic and family crisis — but they did it, and Kathy couldn’t be prouder or more at peace with the business that sustains and grounds her.
John is still a partner in the Kalamazoo coffee mainstay, but after a major motorcycle accident in 2017 he turned over his share of the daily operations to Kathy. He remains behind the scenes of the business he helped build.
John and Kathy were living in Lansing when Kathy began working at an East Lansing coffee shop, contributing her skills as a talented baker to the business.
Kathy always wanted to be a business owner. Her namesake Aunt Kathy ran a small general store in rural Pennsylvania. She spent a summer working in the store — dusting shelves and stocking items, eavesdropping on her aunt and her customers — and thought she’d like to know people that way.
The Beebes began to think a coffee shop was something they could do — together.
“John and I knew we wanted to work together,” she said. “As young people we realized people spend more of their waking lives with the people they work with than the people they choose to be with.
“To work with the person you live with gives you better tools to deal with problems. John’s approach was totally different from mine, but once we were able to get past disagreements and to find the compromise we probably ended up with solutions that neither one of us would have chosen on our own but that oftentimes were the absolutely perfect combination of approaches.”
Kathy was 22 and John was 27 when they moved to Kalamazoo. She originally looked at starting the business closer to campus, like the shop in East Lansing near Michigan State University, but on a reconnaissance mission downtown she was impressed by the vibrancy of the city center and the crowds of workers.
They found their space on the Kalamazoo Mall and did a lot of the work on the site themselves to create the unique interior, from tiling the floor to creating a system of 430-watt grow lights to support a wall of plants and bring a unique warmth to a space that would otherwise feel dark and cavernous. Throughout the years they have also been committed to supporting local artists, often featuring large, vibrant works on their walls.
The world has changed in 30 years. When they started, few people had personal computers — and they certainly didn’t fit in their back pocket. People still went to the public library to look things up. Also, at that time people were allowed to smoke in the cafe.
The cafe has changed too. Flavored coffees are gone. Now they rely on flavored syrups — some of them homemade — when they are making drinks. Kathy, a self-trained chef, started a simple menu of sandwiches in the 1990s, and soups and bagels were their featured lunch for the longest time. The menu has grown through the years to include a plethora of her homemade baked goods: scones, muffins, seven-layer bars, cakes, meringues and cookies.
“People always talk about how small business owners wear so many hats. Boy, do we ever,” she said. “I do my own bookkeeping. I wash the dishes and mop the floor. I also enjoy the creative freedom I have here as far as culinary arts, the art of fine living, the art of horticulture. I’m totally cut out for this.”
Surviving and Thriving
Thirty years of being a small business owner has not been without challenges.
Y2K. September 11. The Great Recession. John’s accident in 2017.
And then, the pandemic.
Actually, during the first full week of January 2020, the Beebes had made the decision to shut down for three days to make some ceiling repairs, to improve lighting and to add new ceiling fans.
“I remember thinking being closed that long was hard. Ha. The joke was on me.”
In March 2020, COVID-19 shuttered businesses for six weeks. Phased re-opening of restaurants began in May 2020.
“From March 16 to April 23, I still had to come in and check on the fridges and temperatures,” Kathy said. “There was a ton of food that had to be taken out. Perishables we had to deal with. I was down here quite a bit trying to empty the fridges. There were all these eggs and milk that you couldn’t even give to people because they wouldn’t touch your stuff. It was so bizarre.”
As the weeks dragged, Kathy, despite being worried, found a profound sense of gratitude.
“I devoted my entire adult career to this store and the anxiety about whether we were going to make it or not was deeply frustrating,” Kathy said. “So, it was a good thing to have to come down here to take care of things. I see that work as a gift in some ways, and it made me grateful for the cafe and to be able to come and sit in my amazing artificial sunlight.”
She would sit in a nook of the cafe that’s ensconced in plants and art, taking in what they built over a couple decades, temporarily ignoring what loomed outside its doors.
“I just really was hoping that it would make it,” she says.
They reopened slowly making practical choices, like closing a few hours earlier than before the pandemic now to conserve their own energy, time, and money during what was the slowest part of their day.
They used disposable cups. They asked people to maintain six feet of distance when picking up orders. When people would hand her their credit card, she accepted it with a Clorox wipe, ran the card, and wiped the card down again before handing it back. But customers were few and far between; most of her days were spent outside the cafe sitting at her red wrought iron table enjoying the outside.
It took a while for people to discover the cafe was still there. But then customers began contacting her about purchasing coffee beans, and she found there was high demand for her baked goods and other food as people slowly returned to work but found limited food options open downtown.
“I realized my community needed me — even if I had only 10 people come in a day. Those 10 people’s lives were improved so greatly. I cannot emphasize that enough. That was so evident,” she said. “It felt good to feel like I was making a contribution. It’s hard to sit back and watch people struggle if I know I can help them.”
Although customers could not stay and eat or drink on the premises, Kathy said she would take her time serving them and allow them to talk.
“I became like a therapist. They’d come in and talk and talk. I think people enjoyed hearing other people who didn’t live in their households just talk. There were all of these random spontaneous interactions with people that my life was so full of and rich with … that I took for granted prior to the pandemic.”
True, she had to be “militant” about COVID protocols, reminding people frequently to wear their masks properly, asking them to socially distance while they waited in line. Most readily complied.
“Others, I would say, “Look, you don’t have to be in here. But if you are going to come in, I’m going to ask you to respect me and cover your nose and mouth and keep me safe and healthy so I can come back to work tomorrow.”
That expectation of respect was served with grace, however. She could see people straining under the pressure of all of the changes and restrictions. “Sometimes people were suffering and I was their easiest target,” Kathy said. “I am not a judgmental person. I don’t know what everyone’s been through. We’re all just trying to make it through this.”
She has seen business steadily building back over the last few months. Things are going well enough that she has hired six employees to help at the store – which isn’t a small feat considering the tight labor market.
It’s been harder to get certain items as well, a rotating backlog of things like turkey, lettuce, and dough.
Most recently: take out cups and lids. That could have been a crisis nearly as bad as if they couldn’t get coffee. But they made an entrepreneur’s pandemic pivot and bought Yeti brand reusable hot and cold cups with the Caffe Casa logo engraved on it, and offer a discount on drinks if you use it instead of a disposable cup and lid to go.
“It’s hard to believe that it’s been less than two years since the start of the pandemic. There are times when it feels like seven years,” she said. She draws a jagged line in the air, saying the recovery looks a little like an EKG machine riding the ups and downs of a heartbeat.
Her heart remains hopeful as she sees more customers return, stepping into Caffe Casa to rediscover the smell of a great cup of coffee and enjoy the buttery goodness of a homemade cookie. They warm themselves under the lights and find a little refuge from the strains of the ongoing challenges of the pandemic.
“I don’t want to say this is the best time of my life, but I feel good about where I am right now. I feel good about what I’m offering to the community and what I’m providing for my family. That we’re doing as well as we are and that I like what I’m doing. I don’t think a lot of people can say that.
“What I have noticed about the pandemic is that it has kind of made people assess what they are doing day to day. It also made me realize that I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. This is it. This is what I’m cut out to do.”
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