Caffé Casa: Caffeinating downtown Kalamazoo long before the brew boom

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

The universe opened the doors, but Kathy and John Beebe did the majority of the work.

On a recent workday morning at Caffé Casa on the Kalamazoo Mall, the coffee-sippers were sparse. Kathy Beebe had a moment to sit back and tell us about the shop the couple opened at the end of 1992.

"You just missed him," Kathy said of John, who was out on a milk run.

It seemed like a quiet morning, but then people started to drift in, some fashionable-looking young women, a guy in work clothes, and a few friends looking to chat over a cup at the outside tables. It was before lunch, after breakfast — maybe they all had a coffee break alarm go off in their heads?

Caffé Casa, located at 128 S. Kalamazoo Mall, turns 30 this year."I know most of those people," Beebe says. "Their walks of life are all different. How they all managed to come here at the same time? The universe did that stuff."

The universe, a pessimist would think, tried to take down the Caffé a number of times. Major companies left downtown Kalamazoo in 2007, which forced the Beebe's into austerity. Then in 2008, the Great Recession didn't help much. 

In 2017, John, on his motorcycle, was hit by a driver hard enough that "it totaled her car," Kathy says. 

Customers can have a hard time deciding which of the delicious pastries to choose, but baristas are happy to help.Was Caffé Casa supposed to survive? Kathy attributes it to forces bigger than her and John. When they thought they'd lose the cafe in 2007, "I did, I kinda put it out to the universe," she says. "If we're supposed to fail, shut us down. If we're supposed to make it, cool, show me a sign of hope."

Signs of hope slowly arrived. After thirty years, they've seen Downtown, the Mall and their customer base evolve. And they've survived.

Thirty-one years ago: Ice Age of the American coffee shop

In 1992, "We were looking to open a coffee house somewhere," she says.

The couple lived in Lansing, and worked in a coffee shop in East Lansing, learning the art of espresso, cappuccino, and other specialty coffee drinks.

Not wanting to compete with their former employer, they looked at Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo.

"Downtown Grand Rapids in '92 was very sketchy," she says. So they visited Kalamazoo, checked out a coffee shop downtown, "ordered a cappuccino, and it was clear that espresso drinks were not their focus," Bebee says

When the weather permits, outdoor seating at Caffé Casa offers a prime view of the Kalamazoo Mall."We walked down the Mall. It was lunchtime, and all these Upjohn employees were out on the lawn, First of America employees walking up and down." 

They thought, "Wow, look at all this foot traffic! And I started counting heads and doing all the marketing I'd been taught to do — market research. 

"I should've come back in the evening. I would've seen a very different picture."

For some historical context: A coffee shop before the '90s in most of the Midwest meant donuts and drip. This writer dug out of his archives a piece he'd written for the Kalamazoo Gazette in 1993, on a new wave of coffee shops that had hit Kalamazoo: 

"...when most folks in the Midwest think of espresso and cafes, they think of trendy people dressed in black with filterless Camels sticking out of their goateed faces sipping at trendy cups of coffee. Not necessarily so, said John Bebee and Kathy Curtis of Cafe Casa," I wrote.

"People from high school kids to the elderly should feel free to enter and often do, Curtis said. 'It's a social setting that doesn’t require a cover charge,' unlike bars, Curtis said."

Nothing cookie cutter about the eclectic interior of Caffé Casa which reflects the owners' tastes.The Mall back then had some life in the daytime, she says now. The beloved department stores, Gilmore's and Jacobson's, were still open. Office workers became regular customers, thanks to their coffee and food made on the spot.

But at night, downtown was dead. For downtown's nightlife, "Club Soda, that's pretty much all there was."

The couple had a vision of a hip spot, with lots of local art on the walls, a place that could be a late-night hangout.

"We, stupidly, being children — seriously, I was 22 when we signed our lease, and John was 26 — we took this idea and business model from the store I worked at," Kathy Bebee says. "She was open really long hours, and nighttime was the busiest time of the day." 

At Caffé Casa, it's never the same cup twice.When they first opened, Caffé Casa stayed open until 10 p.m. on weekdays, and midnight on weekends.

"You could shoot a cannon down the mall after five o'clock any day of the week and not hit a single person back then."

At the Caffé, it was "crickets," she says. "If you got a few people it was like, this is our rush! Fran's daughter (Fran Dwight, our photographer, who was shooting the cafe for the interview) and her friends, they would come down after class at K, and some of them were Western students." Some youth did hang out and talk. "It was before cell phones, so that's what people did." 

The Mall at the time, usually at night, had some issues — Beebe wouldn't call it "sketchy," though.

Seldom the same menu twice — and so much there to choose.The worst was when "someone came along and picked up one of the chairs (at the outdoor tables), had a knife in one hand and a chair in the other, and was threatening our customers." 

An off-duty sheriff from Saugatuck came in, and said, "Hey, you guys have a little bit of a situation out there, you might want to go check it out." 

A KDPS officer had earlier "given us one of his batons that he didn't want anymore because it was extra long and he'd tripped over it in a pursuit... We kept it under the counter. 

"So John grabbed that billy club and went outside, and he smacked it on the ground and he was telling that kid, 'You want to threaten somebody, threaten me!' And the kid dropped the knife and he ran so fast, he ran out of one of his shoes and left it behind."

Walking mall to slow-traffic street

Asked what the biggest change was that impacted their cafe, Beebe says it's that street right outside their door.

To put it in historical context, in 1959, the Kalamazoo Mall became the first pedestrian mall in the country. Two blocks of Burdick Street were closed to traffic. By 1975, four blocks were closed. 

The effort to attract shoppers to the city when shoppers started going to the suburbs' malls, worked, initially. The idea of car-free downtown streets has been reborn in recent years. 

So much to choose from at Caffé Casa.Do pedestrian malls/car-free shopping areas help downtowns? In this video that begins with Kalamazoo's Mall, YouTube channel City Beautiful says it's complicated. 

There was a boom in pedestrian malls in the '60s and '70s, but by the end of the century, if a city wasn't large enough and couldn't supply the foot traffic needed to keep the shops alive, businesses would die and the city would open back up for traffic.

Beebe knows how things worked out for her shop. In 1998, the two south blocks of the Mall were opened up for low-speed, one-way traffic, with parking. 

She remembers "living through the whole division of this community, and everybody in an uproar about it." She heard from people fighting the new plan, "I used to go down there with my mom when I was a kid!" Her response was, "Yeah, what are you doing with your kids now? You're not bringing them down here." 

Fresh from the oven at Caffé Casa.When the Mall was strictly pedestrian, getting supplies into the shop was "so hard, such a hassle. I've paid thousands of dollars in my career to Central City Parking in the form of tickets." 

What Beebe wanted was what the two blocks got, "limited access," she says, with a low-speed street, easily able to be closed for events, that also feels safe and inviting for pedestrians. It also helped that potential customers might drive through, and see that the Caffé was there, open. 

About the new bike lanes appearing in Kalamazoo, she says she hears frustration from drivers, "but I also have a lot of friends who bicycle and commute, get around everywhere on bicycle.

"You know, we have a congested city where parking is in short supply. People complain all the time that there's not enough parking. Many of them are driving from a proximity that's so close they could've walked or biked here, easier and faster than it takes them to drive their car here, find a parking space, and then walk here from that parking space."

She sees more pedestrian and bike accessibility as part of the solution to getting more foot traffic downtown. Back in the '90s, they would join other bike riders and fill downtown Kalamazoo's streets, at 5 p.m. on Fridays, to make a point. "John and I, as a young couple, were part of the Critical Mass bike rides in downtown Kalamazoo," she says.  

More people are downtown 

Beebe says that she and John had advocated for the Art Hop idea — local businesses showcasing art, along with wine and cheese, once a month — back when they were active with DKI (now the Downtown Kalamazoo Partnership). He had seen it done successfully when living in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the '80s, she says. 

Caffé Casa is a frequent choice for downtwon meetings — in person or by phone.They were pushing to make downtown "more vibrant at night and also to always celebrate the arts... Before we offered sandwiches we were showcasing local art."

Now, as the Beebes did back when a troublemaker tried to use one of their chairs as a weapon, downtown and the Mall has seen a burst of life on the sidewalks, with outdoor dining. Plus, controlled public alcohol consumption arrived with the Central Commons Refreshment Area. 

Beebe says it's all brought a lot more people downtown. 

She's often heard people say over the decades, "Oh, I never go downtown. I avoid downtown." 

"I'm sad that they feel that way, but there are so many people who are, 'Let's go on a staycation, let's go downtown!'

"They have the museum, they have the library, there are shops, we can get candy across the street, mom can get a nice coffee, dad can now have a beer and they can all walk around together. Kid's on a sugar high, dad's getting his buzz on and mom's like, mmmm, delicious coffee!" 

Co-owner Kathy Beebe does it all at Caffé Casa.The downtown atmosphere now attracts a diverse mix of people, she says. Plus, "There are more people living down here than there have ever been in my entire 31 years. And that creates foot traffic at times of day when there wouldn't have been any foot traffic." 

Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo College promote downtown to students, she points out. K students in particular, she notes, "are students who study abroad... and in other parts of the world, the coffeehouse is where the culture is at."

There's also a lingering anxiety in some people about venturing downtown, she says. 

Students "are not afraid to go downtown. Students, you know, they feel invincible, so they're not afraid.... If somebody hits them up for money, they say, 'I don't have the cash,' and keep walking.

"But you have somebody — not to stereotype — some suburban mom of some random location, comes downtown with her kids and somebody approaches her for money, like near her car or whatever, she's immediately uncomfortable and may never return."

For many, Caffé Casa is that 'third place.' Kalamazoo resident Grace Gheen stops in for her daily brew.Some would rather go to somewhere familiar outside of Kalamazoo, like a franchised strip mall coffee shop or Panera.

"Makes me really happy to see the people with the cardboard signs outside of those places, too. They're not exempt from finding people who're down on their luck or going through a hard time," she says.

Surviving the Great Recession

The couple has seen downtown landmarks like Gilmore's and Jacobson's close, Beebe says.

So how did they survive?

Huh!" she exclaims with a laugh. "That's a really good question."

A bewildering array of choices fill Caffé Casa's revolving menu.It was "just persistence and perseverance... This is what I've dedicated my entire adult career to." 

The year when she thought they'd lose it all was 2007. "It was after the Pfizer layoffs and First of America sold to PNC, and the headquarters of everything moved out of downtown, and at that time it was...." Beebe sheds some tears thinking about the time.

"We went on this little trip together, and I had this heart-to-heart with John, 'Look, if we're going to keep this store, this is the only way I can think of making it work.'" 

They didn't rehire after some college student staff left for the semester. They became the only employees, overlapping during lunch, their busiest time. "But it was a ghost town. Downtown was so dead, it was unbelievable."

They cut back everything at home and gardened out on their Cooper Township land to eat. "We instilled austerity measures that most people cannot live through," she says. 

This old piano is a fixture at Caffé Casa."We got into this habit of living on very little and doing for ourselves. Celebrating things that are free like flowers that you grow in your garden," she says, gesturing to the flowers in the cafe, still fresh from their garden. "It's hard to have expenses when all of your free time is spent weeding and watering."

"At that point, I gave up caring and worrying about money all the time. I can't, anymore. If we don't make it, we're not going to make it. It brings me to tears to think about how hard it was." 

But they pushed through it. "It's like the universe said, that's what you have to do to have it unfold to you. We made it."

As they reached the point where they could hire staff again, "John's accident happened."

"He's lucky to be alive... They call them life-changing events for a reason." 

For when you're having one of those days. The driver's insurance paid for all the surgeries and medical care. She thinks about "the could'ves" — they could've lost everything to medical expenses, she could've lost John.

"John is actually doing great," she says. "He healed from the accident really well, as well as could be expected." 

He'd gotten into walking for fitness with his therapy dog Frankie, but Frankie's health declined and he had to be put down in August. Again, Beebe gets tearful.

"I feel like all these hardships we've been through have basically hardened us up for the next one. We have a wonderful time in between.

"I try to be a Pollyanna and find a silver lining, but sometimes you just have to wait for it. Frankie was a great dog." 

You can expect more than a good cup of joe at Caffé Casa. Homemade pastries and sandwiches tempt the tastebuds.John can't work as much as he used to for the Caffé, but he makes supply runs when, say, the oat milk is low. For the first time in 16 years, she recently got a vacation, thanks to John.

John told her, "He's got this," she says. "That shows a great deal of his strength." 

After 30 years, their customers are…

"If you see a person, it's them," she says. "Not just students and business owners and retailers, but it's like world travelers, people who work for non-profit organizations, it's people bringing their kids to college...." 

Everyone working downtown, from sanitation workers to the local movers and shakers, stop in for lunch or coffee breaks — for Beebe's homemade soups, site-made sandwiches, and all the varieties of baked goods that coffee drinking requires.

"I love that it's not a stereotype of someone who comes here, 'Oh, you have to wear a beret and have a bunch of piercings and tattoos.' But those people feel comfortable here, too. We try to provide a welcoming environment for everyone."

Visiting Caffé Casa — or the Mall and downtown — is more of an experience than a lunch or coffee break.

Ask Mark Wedel — the on-site prepared food will please the palate."I feel like, honestly, since COVID, people have put a different value on experiences," she says. 

It's something she learned from Monopoly for Millennials, an updated version of the old game where experiences are collected, not cash. "They don't buy property. 'Eww, responsibility, yuck!' It's all experiences, and some of them are positive and some of them are negative. Just like real life, is what the game says.

"We realize that people value experiences and a place to go. When they come in here, they don't just get a drink or something to eat, which hopefully they do, but they come in and experience something different," Beebe says. Something in the middle of downtown Kalamazoo that has history and heart.

Caffé Casa's menu board can be bewildering, but it can also be an adventure for the adventurous. Why go with the usual drip coffee when there's the cafe con leche caramel creme with white chocolate, caramel sauce, espresso, and steamed milk, with whipped cream? For lunch, dare to eat the bacon feta wrap, or have the safe turkey croissant (as this writer did), and still be pleasantly surprised by a herb mayo that's not the usual bought-in-bulk restaurant spread?

"You can go to any restaurant anywhere and have this cookie-cutter experience. 'Oh, it's just like a Panera elsewhere.... I know what I can order because I like their cheesy broccoli soup.'"

Recalling the many ups and downs of Caffé Casa's 30-year history inspires both joy and tears for co-owner Kathy Beebe.Their dreams of being the night-time coffee hangout are behind them. "We close at 4 o'clock," she says. Some complain that that's too early, "But it's sustainable," she says.

She has a "willingness to turn away another $50 to have some quality of life with my husband which I value very much... When you have it almost taken away from you, it puts it in perspective of, this is what I'm living for."

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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.