Vegan-friendly coffee shop looks to be a welcoming place in downtown Kalamazoo

Braden and Kim Strayer think coffee needs a new flavor in Kalamazoo.

“I think that we’ve had kind of the same flavor of coffee for a long time,” says Braden Strayer. “There are a lot of shops that have been here for a long time and have stayed the same for a long time. … We wanted to maybe take a step forward into some modern coffee and try out some new things.”

It's happening at Rose Gold Coffee Company, a new vegan-friendly coffee shop and cafe owned by the Strayers. It opened for business on Nov. 10, at 220 W. Michigan Ave. in downtown Kalamazoo.

Rose Gold Coffee Company serves pourovers and filtered coffees, manual brews and hand-crafted espressos using freshly roasted coffee beans from Pittsburgh-based Commonplace Coffee Company and Michigan-based Littlefoot Coffee Roaster.

The largest part of its vegan-friendly offerings is its food -- vegan cookies, muffins, scones, sticky buns, cheesecake, pie, and beer bread. All are prepared by head chef Brittney Ravencrest. Starting the week of Dec. 18, she was to add soups and fresh bread to the menu. Soon, vegan ice cream and popsicles are to be added.

Dairy milk is used for lattes although oat milk is an option for those who are lactose intolerant or allergic to nuts. The cafe uses homemade flavorings, including lavender, vanilla, pumpkin and caramel. Rose Gold buys ingredients for its foods from the Natural Health Center in Kalamazoo.

The business uses Fort Wayne, Ind.-based Modbar modular espresso machines. And about 30 customers can be seated in the 1,600-square-foot venue.

Rose Gold's owners have described their food menu as “plant-based” to avoid creating a barrier for people who have misconceptions about what vegan means or whether it’s for them. But the Strayers also want to provide an option for what they say is an underserved population here.

“There are a lot of people that we know that love food and love to get excited about food but there’s not a lot of places where they can do that,” Braden Strayer says. “There’s not a lot of vegan options. And if there is, it’s one option that you can have (at a restaurant). It’s the one thing you can have every time you come back. It’s like a consolation prize.”

He says in the cafe's planning stages he and his wife were focused on coffee but realized that coffee usually needs to be partnered with food of some kind.

“The quality and how it was made was so important to us that we wanted to have a lot of control of that,” he says.

Rose Gold brews coffee from freshly roasted coffee beans from Pittsburgh-based Commonplace Coffee Company and Michigan-based Littlefoot Coffee Roaster.They also wanted to offer a welcoming place, one where people get to know them, and vice-versa. It's “experience-based customer service,” Strayer explains.

They wanted to provide a retreat from the impersonal atmosphere at some large franchises, he says.
“I feel like the hope is to bring a little heart back to it,” Strayer says of the coffee industry. One of the ways to accomplish that is working in Kalamazoo’s collaborative, growing craft coffee industry, which young entrepreneurs have helped to expand over the past few years.

It was important to create a place where coffee lovers want to gather, Strayer says, a place where "you’re on a first-name basis with your baristas. You recognize them and you have a rapport. It’s a nice feeling.”

Strayer, 26, and his wife Kim, 28, are former Water Street Coffee Joint baristas. The name Rose Gold was chosen by poet Kim Strayer and is based on the location’s former use as a jewelry store and the rose gold wedding bands she and her husband own.

They met in 2012 when Braden left Water Street’s Oakland Drive location to cover a shift for someone at its Borgess Medical Center location. That's where Kim worked.

He is a Portage Central High School graduate who studied “a little bit of everything” at Kalamazoo Valley Community College before becoming fascinated with psychology and earning a degree in psychology and women and gender studies in 2015 at Western Michigan University. About his post-graduation career, he says, “I had no plan.’

Kim Strayer attended Portage Northern High School before graduating from Kalamazoo College with an undergraduate degree in creative writing and poetry. She headed to the University of Pittsburgh for a master’s degree that would allow her to teach at the college level.

The couple lived in Pittsburgh until Kim obtained her master’s degree in 2017. Braden worked there as a bartender before helping open a new retail location for Commonplace Coffee Company. The pair returned to the Kalamazoo area in 2017 with the idea of going into business for themselves.

“Really we didn’t think it was possible,” Strayer says of he and his wife opening their own coffee shop. “It seemed kind of silly, our idea, until we met these people who showed us that -- seemingly by force of goodwill and some good strategy -- you can build something.”

Rose Gold is the 10th coffee specialty operation in Kalamazoo’s central business district, not counting the coffees sold at Bronson Methodist Hospital and area restaurants. A Biggby Coffee closed its 121 E. Michigan Ave. location in November.

The other downtown shops include: Caffe Casa, Civil House Coffee Co., Mamaleelu, Rio, Something’s Brewing, The Black Owl, Totally Brewed Café, Walnut & Perk Cafe and Water Street Coffee Joint.

Andrew Haan, president of Kalamazoo Downtown Partnership (formerly Downtown Kalamazoo Inc.), says of the growth of the craft coffee industry, “This really hasn’t been something that has been coordinated on our part at all. What you’re seeing is a very organic growth of this sector in our downtown.”

He says, “We have one of the best coffee cultures in Michigan with some roasters going back 25-plus year here. And you’re starting to see some of these different shops develop their own niche … in how they prepare and serve their product.”

Haan says there’s a coffee shop in almost every part of the central business district. That bodes well as workplace environments evolve and coffee shops and cafes become alternative working places.

A look at part of the menu from Rose Gold Coffee Company.A lot of people, working remotely on laptops, treat coffee shops as a more relaxed third workplace (after the office and home), he says. “It’s almost a home away from home for a lot of folks,” Haan says.

Will the community become oversaturated with coffee houses?

“We’re not there yet,” Haan says. “I think the market will balance itself out as long as people continue to offer something to set themselves apart. I think there’s plenty of room at this point.”

Strayer says he also sees more synergy than rivalry among people currently working in the industry locally. Many of them know one another or previously worked together.

There is now more cause for consumers to rotate from one shop to another, he says, likening the idea of coffee-house tours to brewpub tours that have become popular with craft beer drinkers.

Rose Bousamra and Braden Strayer at Rose Gold Coffee Company in downtown Kalamazoo.“The way that we started dreaming this up, it was very much a fantasy,” Strayer says. “We didn’t have any of the practical stuff thought out, only the parts that would be really cool and real fun.”

They gained a lot of practical knowledge under the tutelage of Commonplace Coffee owner T.J. Fairchild and his staff, the operation in Pittsburg that Braden had helped out earlier.

“The biggest thing we got from them was their advice on how to run a business,” Strayer says. “T.J. Fairchild always says that he’s a terrible businessman. He didn’t go to business school. He’s not the best with numbers. But he’s just a real good people person. He knows how to care for a person, make them feel welcome, leave a nice impression, and he just really believes in the power of forging a meaningful connection with someone as a great way to establish yourself as a business.”

Not a bad model for the newest coffee shop on the block.
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Read more articles by Al Jones.

Al Jones is a freelance writer who has worked for many years as a reporter, editor, and columnist. He is the Project Editor for On the Ground Kalamazoo.