People come together over coffee at Urban Blend

The story of Urban Blend is about beginnings. A lot of different beginnings.

One of them is Saturday, April 30 -- the grand opening of the coffee shop that already is more than a place to get a cup of coffee.

Even before that milestone, Urban Blend was making a name for itself as a neighborhood gathering spot on Kalamazoo's northside, the first coffee shop to be located there.

People's Food Co-op conducted a job fair there in April. Teachers from nearby Lincoln International School are promising to come down on their breaks. Office workers already have been dropping by. Meetings take place there.

For the owners Louis and Gloria Parker this is the beginning of what they envision as a place where people of all ages and races can come together. It will be a spot for young people to study, for neighbors to gather, for poetry readings and open mic nights where people come to show off whatever gift with words they might have. Art work will be displayed. And people will be invited to a variety of special events.

"This is a place for people from 2 to 92," says Gloria. "Young kids can find a job here and this can be a place where they can find something to do. It can revitalize the community. That's what it's all about."

It's also about good food at affordable prices. Soups and sandwiches are on the menu. The coffee is fair trade. Broccoli cheddar soup, potato and ham soup, and chili will be regular fare. So will turkey, roast beef and Italian sandwiches.

Inside the shop, a sign on the far wall reads sliced bologna 49 cents. Next to it: Sweetheart Enriched Bread 19 cents. As he tore out the walls during the laborious reconstruction project, Louis Parker unearthed the signs.

That's one of the reasons Wednesday lunch specials will feature bologna sandwiches for 49 cents. The other reason is more personal.

The building that's now home to Urban Blend was once a grocery store. And Louis remembers shopping there as a boy. Finding those signs took him back to the days when he was 7 years old. He ran to the store to get a loaf of bread and a pound of bologna, ran home to make a sandwich, then back to school. Many memories of growing up in the neighborhood are tied to the location.

With the help of friends, but often by himself, Louis tore up the floors, ceilings and walls of the building, reconstructing it over the past four years. He put in windows and doors. Six friends helped with the ceiling. Their family of four grown children has helped, too.

"We've gotten a lot of help from the kids," Gloria says. "They've been there whenever we needed them."

The Parkers, married for 31 years, are in this project together. It started when Louis was looking for something to do after becoming disabled through an injury at work. He's had surgery to repair his torn rotator cuff, but the arm has never been the same. He also is diabetic. With combination of illnesses and his circumstances, Louis enrolled in programs offered through Michigan Rehabilitation Services, which helped set him on the path to reconstructing and opening Urban Blend, at 714 N. Burdick.

Gloria found the building for sale online, urged Louis to go down and look at it and that was the beginning of becoming entrepreneurs for them.

Since the Northside has never had a coffee shop lots of people have come in to see what it looks like, to make a donation toward its success, and to wish the Parkers well. "They say, we need a shop like this because we've never had one before,"  Gloria says.

A lot of people want to see the coffee shop succeed. Area restaurants have gotten behind the venture and have donated tables and chairs. Main Street Pub donated bar stools.

One of those supporters is George Martin, president of the Arcadia Institute. The organization is dedicated to making it possible for people with disabilities to be welcomed and feel part of the community at large. In that regard, working with Louis was a natural fit. Beyond that, Arcadia Institute has offices nearby and wanted to support a business it saw as a positive development for the neighborhood.

Arcadia Institute sponsored a fundraiser on behalf of the Parkers in late March to assist them with the opening of the coffee shop. Gloria says the event was so well attended people were lined up out the front door.

There is further evidence of community support throughout the coffee shop on a signature wall  -- a who's who of Kalamazoo. Gloria says, "These are people who believe in what we are doing." 

Now that the Parkers have done what it takes to get the coffee shop fully operational they invite the community to share their vision -- the beginning of an Urban Blend.

Kathy Jennings is the editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photos by Erik Holladay.

Gloria, left, and Louis Parker own and operate Urban Blend located at 714 N. Burdick.

The Parkers hope to build a place for the entire community to gather in Urban Blend.

Urban Blend is decorated in old coffee signs and knick knacks that have meaning to the Parkers.

The bologna sign has a special meaning to Louis Parker. When he was a child, he used to buy the meat right in the very store now occupied by Urban Blend.

A whole wall covered at Urban Blend is covered in signatures and messages from supporters in the community.

Urban Blend coffehouse located at 714 N. Burdick will have an open house from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. Saturday, April 30.

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