Roasting a masterpiece: The art and evolution of Live Oak Coffeehouse

Live Oak Coffeehouse opened in 2017 and has helped transform Midland’s Midtown neighborhood in the years since, with The Ashman Loft also functioning as a launch pad for other businesses, creative communities and everything in between.

The business is more an unofficial artistic community and sometimes there is an 'adult' around in charge. The majority of things at Live Oak you’ll see, from new menu items to new products, are simply the result of a wide family of creatives who have sparks of interest and run with them.

The Live Oak Roasters roasting room.

New efforts are often started by someone saying: “What if we…” and being interrupted mid-sentence and let loose to create on those ideas.

As such, the business has had quite a bit of organic growth, often originating from those same ideas. Live Oak’s Uptown Bay City location opened in 2018, and the idea for roasting their own coffee was something the team has tossed around since opening and formally in 2019.

Fresh beans ready to be roasted.

Live Oak Roasters officially kicked off in March of 2020, because the team also doesn’t mind a few challenges, like expanding a business during a pandemic.

“It’s been something we’ve been talking about for a while since opening in 2017 and really put some additional thought around last year. Sean Bartley, our head roaster, has wanted to lead a roasting effort for some time and was also a major part of starting our roasting effort,” says Jazzmyn Benitez, Operations Manager of Live Oak Coffeehouse. “And with people being home more, we’ve seen it take off quite well despite launching in March. Since then, we’ve shipped coffee to different states and all over Michigan as well.”

Live Oak Roasters & Pantry started in March 2020.

They also found that the pandemic presented new needs, as people spent more time at home. Live Oak has made an increasing amount of baked goods in house, which have taken off and become customer favorites, like their quiche, cookies, muffins and famous “No Nonsense” bars full of whole ingredients.

They saw the demand for items increase during the pandemic and started offering some of the best sellers in bulk purchase quantities. That effort has now turned in to Live Oak Pantry.

Benitez in front of the roasting room.

“The fun thing about starting some of these new things for us at Live Oak is that as much as I’m an artist and creative and involved in so many artistic things here, I also love creating the processes that help the business all work,” says Benitez. “That could be anything from packaging coffee, to designing the best workflow as we grow into these new spaces. It’s also a coincidence that my mom is in the same type of role back in California where she lives, so we get to talk about what works and what doesn’t quite a bit.”

Live Oak Pantry now offers honey from a local farmer in town, lattes and teas by the half gallon, and many of the items you’ll find at Live Oak. During the pandemic, when stories ran out of yeast, Live Oak leveraged their wholesale account and started selling yeast as well. Because distractibaking is real. Most things can be purchased online, in store, or by calling ahead.

A bag of coffee beans that will soon be headed to a coffee cup near you.

While kicking off two new efforts during a pandemic, and managing a business under the state’s restrictions might seem challenging to some, Benitez says it has been all in stride with the team’s nature.

“Of course, there are times where it has been challenging. With any new business, it’s finding the right pieces to make everything work together smoothly. And I say that very loosely, as this has been a learning process,” she says. “As we’ve grown through all of this, especially during 2020, sometimes it’s just about focusing on what we can do today, how we can reach that reasonable, incremental growth, one step at a time. I’d like to see us get us to the point where we have a walk-in cooler, for example.”

Meghan Richardson's mural inside the roasting room.

Most baking and food items were the inspiration of Daniel Terhune, Live Oak’s general manager and baking enthusiast and Live Oak’s owner Renee Deckrow. Experimentation is possible, because tucked in the back of the building, Live Oak also houses a commercial kitchen. In the coming months, they are planning to expand the pantry program, housing possible startups like Live Oak’s own multi-talented coffeehouse manager Meghan Richardson, who also runs Moon Macarons with her mom.

“I’ve been in food service for nearly 17 years and I’ve enjoyed the collaborative process of launching some of our pantry items this year,” says Terhune. “And I especially like making things that people can share, those comfort food items we all find familiar. For bread specifically, I like working with yeast because it’s making something out of a living thing, it’s alive and you can create so much within that.”

Daniel Terhune, general manager and baking enthusiast.

Speaking about the creative process, Terhune says it’s something that they all have that just helps things at Live Oak tick.

“All of us are creatives on some sort of level, just some of us have different mediums,” says Terhune. “We all have that imaginative and artistic bone woven into us as people, so you see the sparks just naturally happen here at Live Oak. Renee and Aaron do a great job keeping us all in line and make sure we are paying attention to data.”

Live Oak started shipping their own coffee in March of 2020.

This fall, Live Oak is hoping use that imaginative streak to expand into wholesale and sell in other coffee shops and they are also planning seasonal baked goods, like pumpkin molasses cookies, house made cinnamon rolls, and increasing the number of businesses working in the collaborative kitchen space.

They are also exploring the possibility of branching out into chocolate in the future. Live Oak Pantry drinks available by the half gallon.

But not just any chocolate.

Now that Live Oak has a coffee roasting operation, they are looking at exploring those same options for roasting their own as well, or creating their own bean-to-bar chocolate with raw cacao.

As Live Oak continues to evolve and since it’s driven by a handful of artists with different passions, creating art will always be one of the main themes you’ll see. With that in mind, Benitez and Richardson each took on two new murals this year.

Benitez did the black and green coffee-themed mural for the drive thru on the fence in the back corner of the parking lot. Inside, Richardson took on creating the right vibe in the roasting room.

“This was my first solo mural, so that was fun,” says Richardson. “I’d helped here and there on Jazz’s work with the ‘helping people’ one by the food pantry in Center City as well as her mural at Circle Auto Parts, but this one was all on me.”

Meghan Richardson in the roasting room with her finished creation.

“Renee [Deckrow] gave me a color palate to work with and I took it from there,” says Richardson. “I wanted Sean or anyone to walk in and feel like they were inside a coffee plantation, so the theme is essentially going back to the roots of what coffee is all about. So much about coffee is the origin of the beans and the history of the different regions. I wanted the room to feel like that and really help create the mood for roasting our coffee.”

You’ll see art displayed throughout Live Oak though, from the gallery wall in the front room, to the labels on some of their coffee blends. And you can say art runs in the family, because one of the Deckrow’s children even helped with some of the label design.

Benitez by her new mural noting the drive thru.

“I would say we are naturally very adaptive people to begin with, and during the pandemic, we just kind of naturally went to our creative places, whether that’s with our Live Oak Pantry effort, turning the outdoor seating and space into a socially-distant oasis, or roasting coffee and putting our own artistic spin on it,” says Richardson. “Who knows where we are going to take that in the future, we don’t feel boxed in here and all of us come from different backgrounds, so we all bring something different to the table. That makes us so much more than a coffee shop, it makes us an inspired community.”

Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. As the Managing Editor of Catalyst Midland, her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner. 
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