Owner’s niece inspires Kenzie’s BE Café, where staff with disabilities will run the show

Sixteen-year-old Makenzie Aney is the inspiration for a café her aunt plans to open in mid-2022 with an aspiration to do more than sell espressos and lattes. 

The most distinctive feature at Kenzie’s BE Café will be the 25 people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who will run the entire nonprofit business on their own.

“They’re going to be pretty much running the show,” says Erin Lyon, who owns the Jumpin’ Java Coffee House in downtown Grand Haven and is preparing to open Kenzie’s BE Café next year. “Cashier, making the drinks, sweeping and the mopping, doing the dishes, greeting everybody. They’re going to be the ones serving the customers.”

Erin Lyon, who owns the Jumpin’ Java Coffee House in downtown Grand Haven and is preparing to open Kenzie’s BE Café next year.

Makenzie was born 12 weeks premature with cerebral palsy. She was the length of a $1 bill and in the hospital for 12 weeks, Lyon says. Today, she’s a freshman at Mona Shores High School who’s on the cheerleading team with energy to spare.

“She’s a strong, spunky kid,” says Lyon. “She’s the main reason I have put myself in the world of disabilities from the beginning.”

Crescent Building location

The coffeehouse is slated to open in May or June and will occupy 1,885 square feet on the main floor of what was the lobby at the former Crescent Theater. The venue, at 1103 Washington Ave., in Grand Haven’s Washington Square commercial district, is now the Crescent Building LLC.

The theater was constructed in 1928, and the first film shown there was “Home, James” featuring Laura La Plante. Admission was 25 cents for adults and 10 cents for children. It closed in 1939, a victim of the Great Depression. A series of businesses later occupied the building, changing the original façade and interior layout through the years.

Current owners Bob and Bobbi Sabine intend to restore the façade to its original appearance and contour, while gutting the interior that will, among other things, make it accessible to everyone. Renovations are expected to be completed in May.

“It’s the last intact theater structure in the city of Grand Haven of a half-dozen or so,” says Bobbi Sabine. “The others have been torn down or converted into condos.”

‘Something that is needed’

Bobbi Sabine is eager to have Kenzie’s BE Café as one of her tenants. 

“We’re excited to work with Erin,” says Sabine. “She is a person who gives all to the community and is recognized as someone who cares for the community. This is something that is needed, from our perspective.”

Although Michigan allows paying people with disabilities below minimum wage, Lyon says her employees will earn a fair wage for their work.

“I don’t think anybody should pay someone a lower wage just because they have disabilities,” says Lyon. “We will be paying them a standard wage and they will still earn tips.”

Kenzie’s BE Café will open next year after renovations are complete.

Kenzie’s BE Café will follow the model of four other BE Cafés, including Brody’s BE Café in Ada, from which Lyon drew insights for her coffee shop. Such coffeehouses provide life and job skills, as well as meaningful employment for people with disabilities.

Sister businesses

BE Cafés are not franchises, says Lyon, but instead are sister businesses that work together as B corporations, meaning they balance purpose and profit and operate as a force for good.

“(Brody’s Café) has the same setup, as well,” says Lyon. “The founder of it is a mother and teacher who has a son with Down syndrome. She wanted her son to have a place he can give back to the community through employment. Now, two years later, it’s successful.”

The goal of Kenzie’s BE Café is not to provide permanent employment for its workers but to be a greenhouse of opportunities that will enable them to grow in new directions, she says. 

Kenzie’s BE Café will open next year after renovations are complete.

“The goal would be that somebody else would walk into the café and say, ‘I want to hire your employees to work at my business because I see how well they do things here,’” says Lyon. “We’re hoping to have many more programs down the road that will have other job opportunities at businesses within or outside of our community that will increase their ability to get employment.”

Kenzie’s BE Café will link arms with Lake Effect Kitchen’s nonprofit, Eat Well Do Good, a delivery-only kitchen in Grand Haven that also employees people with disabilities.  

“What will happen is the staff at Kenzie’s will go to Eat Well Do Good and they will actually make all the food that will then get brought back to Kenzie’s and be sold,” says Lyon. “It’s another level of programming: more job skills, more life skills that we’ll be able to offer them.”

Community support

Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis says community support is strong for Lyon’s coffee shop. The Eagles Club and Rotary Club of Grand Haven are getting behind her café with fundraisers slated for 2022, says McGinnis.

“She’s got a lot of momentum going,” McGinnis says of Lyon.

Kenzie’s BE Café will open next year after renovations are complete.

A confluence of events inspired Kenzie’s BE Café. The Sabines approached Lyon in March 2021 about opening another Jumpin’ Java, but Lyon wanted to go in a different direction. In part, that’s because she serves on the board of Gracious Grounds, a faith-based community that offers housing to people with disabilities. But it’s her niece Makenzie who is the muse for launching a BE Café.

Still, it’s uncertain if Makenzie will work there once it opens.

“She said she would greet people but would not do the dishes,” Lyon says with a chuckle. 
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Read more articles by Paul R. Kopenkoskey.