Something’s brewing in Kalamazoo: Independent coffee scene continues to grow, thrive

Kalamazoo’s beer scene is no secret, but it isn’t all about happy hour around these parts. The city’s independent coffee scene is without question brewing up something special.
 
While the longest-running independent company in Kalamazoo, Water Street Coffee Roaster, continues to expand its footprint -- having recently opened its fifth location and first drive-thru only locale at 2603 S. Sprinkle Road July 20 -- two other shops are busy making their marks on the scene in 2017.
 
Walnut & Park Cafe opened its doors this March, and Civil House Coffee, owned by Rhino Media founder Kevin Romeo, will pour its first cupst of coffee this fall at 344 N. Rose.
 
"The coffee community in Kalamazoo is developing really quickly," says Mack Chrisman, designer and manager for Civil House, who returned to his hometown of Kalamazoo recently after a few years honing his craft in the thriving independent roaster scene in Nashville. "The revitalization of the downtown area has changed things so much and the scene is becoming really awesome."
 
A big part of that scene is Black Owl, a subsidiary of Kalamazoo Coffee Company, which was named the best coffee shop in Michigan by MLive.com in 2015. 
 
Other shops dotting the Kalamazoo landscape include Caffe Casa, Something’s Brewing, Coexist Cafe, Bright Eyes, Fido Motors Cafe and Fourth Coast Cafe & Bakery. The growth in local spots to grab a coffee or linger over a speciality drink comes at a time when national specialty coffee sales are increasing by 20 percent per year and account for nearly 8 percent of the $18 billion dollar U.S. coffee market. Independent coffee shops equal $12 billion in annual sales.

And while one might think the burgeoning local scene creates a competitive atmosphere, Katie Hurst, marketing director for Water Street, finds the exact opposite to be true. "It’s a really tight-knit community," she says. "I find that coffee is very community-driven and that people like to learn from one another. I think anything that adds to our community, in general, is a positive thing, especially when it comes to variety."
 
Collaboration and education
 
When it comes to working together, Chrisman has plans to bring some of the area coffee shops even closer together once Civil House opens its doors.
 
Part of his vision involves monthly meet-ups where they can come together and create a dialogue where they begin to share what’s working for them, what’s not, discuss each other’s niches and truly learn from one another.
 
He also plans to extend that dialogue to customers through regular classes that focus on education -- something Water Street also began doing in 2016.
 
"Through the years, I’ve sort of developed this vision of introducing specialty coffee in a way that is not off-putting or snobby," Chrisman says. "The real issue, I’ve found, is how people educate their customers.
 
"One of our goals is to communicate effectively and help the customer to understand what coffee is, how it works and what you have to do to brew correctly… actually understanding that coffee at its most consistent is really inconsistent."
 
That type of education, Hurst has found, not only helps create a more educated customer, but brings the community closer together and gives folks the proper tools to take home coffee brewing to the next level.  
 
"Coffee I think is one of those things that I think is pretty basic but at the same time has a huge potential to be really dynamic," Hurst says. "For some people, it’s just a cup of coffee, but for a lot of people that are getting into coffee and the industry, it’s about a lot more than that.  It’s become a hobby for some people.
 
"People are starting to look at it the way some people look at beer. They are taking it more serious and want to understand where it comes from and how to do pour overs and other things at home."
 
A different type of independence
 
While places like Civil House and Water Street may be focused more on the overall coffee experience, Walnut & Park, located at 322 W. Walnut St., has built its business on an entirely different model.
 
Don’t be mistaken, the shop offers everything one would find at another coffee shop and is still about delivering a memorable customer experience, but more than that their focus has been on delivering second chances.
 
A project of the Kalamazoo Probation Enhancement Program (KPEP) — a private, nonprofit residential and outpatient correctional rehabilitation program — aside from a few people in managerial positions, the staff is entirely made up of former prisoners, probationers, and parolees that are graduates of KPEP’s culinary arts program and looking to transition back into society.
 
"It definitely goes beyond being just a coffee shop," says William DeBoer, president and CEO of KPEP. "We are teaching people real skills, such as how to be at work on time and how to provide great customer service. We’ve constantly been getting compliments on our staff’s attention to detail and the customer service provided, and that’s all part of the training. You go into a lot of coffee shops and restaurants and the customer service is really lacking. And that (good customer service) is one of the main things employers want."
 
Going beyond providing that training-ground for KPEP graduates, many employees have transitioned into full-time jobs at Walnut & Park, and one of the cool things about it, DeBoer points out, is that many customers have no idea about the backgrounds of their employees.
 
"To them, they found the coffee shop on Google or MapQuest, and it’s just another coffee shop," he says. "The service is good, the coffee is good, and that’s it. We have materials on the counter that tell you who we are but we don’t put it front and center. We’re a business."
 
The business, led by two former Water Street managers, Tara Staten and Casey Grisolono, features Water Street coffee and gives area residents and commuters coming into Kalamazoo from the south a place to enjoy a nice breakfast or lunch, as well as top-notch coffee in the Vine neighborhood.
 
"We’re mostly about the program," DeBoer says. "But we’re also about being good neighbors in community.  … We run a tough business. Talking about people getting out of prison and transitioning back into the community is not popular sometimes, and we have to be sensitive to the community we serve, but at the end of the day, we offer a one of a kind program in the State of Michigan and also offer great coffee."
 
Ryan Boldrey is a freelance journalist and editor living in Kalamazoo. A Michigan native, he returned to his home state in 2016 after spending a decade working as a writer and editor in Colorado. He spends much of his time traveling to see live music and is an avid outdoor enthusiast and Detroit Tigers fan.
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