FLINT, Michigan—The smells and sounds have a familiar rhythm. Grinders shriek and crush dry roasted coffee beans into powdery espresso, mashed into porta filters. Baristas move around in steady tandem like the swirl of steam milk and maybe a little flaring waves of latte art, lockstep with the morning rush.
Sitting and sipping. Here and there. At any one of Flint’s small independent coffee shops, people seem to move through with an almost jazz dance-like precision, all familiar moves, welcoming personal improvisation. From roasters like Flint Coffee Company and Heyday to varied cafes around town like Wild Root, Cafe Rhema, Foster Coffee, Flint Crepe Company and Totem Books, coffee and cafe culture is perking up in the Vehicle City.
Heading north on Grand Traverse a few blocks from the downtown strip is where Ken Van Wagoner holds court with his morning regulars. He is the owner, manager, drink specialist and defacto community sounding board.
Good Beans Cafe has been a downtown mainstay in the historical Carriage Town neighborhood for 18 years. Van Wagoner is happy the new shops downtown are doing well.
“For me, it means vindication,” he says. “I think it’s the same philosophy when someone from here goes on vacation to California, or Italy, and they come back and say: ‘You know what? I missed you, I missed the way you did things.’ And for me that’s vindication that I’ve done it right.”
Van Wagoner slings specialty drinks such as the Old Flannel Shirt, White Alpine and Nutty Irishman along his 39-foot art deco bar.
“What I really enjoy is when people from outside the area come here and are surprised by what they find,” Van Wagoner says. “What they see here is that we are thriving, that people here are working beyond the obstacles.”
And, of course there are obstacles.
This area has seen more than its fair share of disinvestment, compounded recession, crime, and shrinking population—not to mention the water crisis. And, yet, still, in spite of and through it all, Van Wagoner smiles and laughs easy while shaking his head.
The culture here is different. Organic. Proud. “Because, I think the thing is, we could probably go to where you come from and rock it, because here is hard, and we’ve made it work.”
Most conversations at the bar at Good Beans have a community in-the-round feel, as if for a few hours each morning a village square encamps itself for monologues and debate. The chitchatting pronouncements are coupled with brief stories spiced with jokes, gossip and laughter.
Van Wagoner is happy with his “newish” coffee neighbors.
“I’m glad we have more people coming in to fill the field,” he says, “It’s not, ‘Hey, what’re you doing here? You don’t belong here.’ Well, no, it’s more like, ‘You do belong here, you have a great purpose here, and you show us that we did it right.’”
Take a right on west First Avenue toward Garland Street, just over the river heading south. Pull up on the bricks in front of Cafe Rhema, in the middle of the Saginaw strip.
Tiff Sommers is carrying on conversation with a few of her many friends who just happen to be patrons. Managing the 1920s-styled cafe with swing music, easing into leather couches and vintage furniture, it’s unclear whether the crowd gathered here were friends or patrons first.
“I love that there are more people coming together around coffee,” Sommers says. “Coffee is growing here, and you can tell that the scene is drawing more people downtown—not just students and people who work around here—and that’s great because I love teaching people about coffee and sharing my love for this city.”
Rhema, which opened in August 2013, ascribes to the “third wave of coffee” movement with a focus on producing high-quality coffee. “We’ve been digging into the craft side of things,” Sommers says. “It’s about increasing coffee quality, using more direct trade, greater emphasis on sustainability.”
Sommers took second at the Flintown Throwdown at Foster Coffee Company at the Ferris Building on February 8. The latte art competition featured baristas from all over Flint, Genesee County, and Southeast Michigan. Taking first was Caleb Ingalsbe, a regular competitor from Plymouth who says he sees coffee culture “erupting in Flint.”
Around the corner, Stephanie Norman has been operating Hot Cups Wanna Spoon inside the Flint Farmers’ Market for four years.
“Here, I really believe you have a lot people that really love each other,” she says. “It’s friendly, it’s kind of low key, and it should be, because there really isn’t anywhere you can go where you don’t see someone you know.”
Norman notes each of Flint’s coffee shops is its own unique entity. “I like how each of the shops don’t have the same types of coffee, that we each have our own niche, and provide our own spin, our own thing.”
Flint Northern alum Levellyn Hunter’s podcast “The Daily Brew” features local coffee people and loves what he sees developing.
“It’s about time that Flint has areas where you can have folks come together,” he says. “You know, just take a look around, you see here black, white, and brown, old and young, here together.
““That’s just good culture. … Maybe what comes next is more people who feel they’re strangers can come down here and meet over a cup of coffee.”
Heading west out of downtown on Court Street, right before passing the White Horse Tavern, Bridgette Enle sits on break at Totem Books. The manager of the cafe, Enle is enjoying her sandwich along rows of vinyl, the neighboring Michigan and Flint authors section, and graphic novels keeping her company.
“We’re off the path coming from downtown, so it’s a good stop off if you’re looking for different events, like open mic night, or a book signing,” she says. “But also, we just love being the place to go to get some coffee and chill out with a book.”
Owner Dean Yeotis agrees, while walking along the various shelves stacked with books of history, crime, poetry, a large children’s section and assorted music. “I think that when people can connect over shared passions, whether it’s books, art or music, and express different perspectives, both the individual and community benefit.”
Take a right on Ann Arbor, swing down the hill, and head north to The Local Grocer.
Upstairs roasting fair trade Peruvian beans is the husband-wife duo of John Cherry and Teresa Villacorta of Flint Coffee Company. Her parents, Humberto and Juliana, have a coffee farm in the Amazonas region of Peru. Getting the business started was difficult because they import such a small amount, many shipping companies weren’t interested in doing business with them.
Ultimately, it was a Flint connection, Adam Kline with Atlantic Specialty Coffee, that helped make their business dreams possible.
“If it wasn’t for a Flint connection, we wouldn’t have been able to get the beans back home,” Cherry says.
Spinning crepes at the Throwdown, Ryan Beuthin of Flint Crepe Company says they focus on locally sourced ingredients—but coffee beans couldn’t be grown in Flint, of course.
“We dug deep into what it might mean to apply our sourcing ethic of buying from growers we know, respect and trust.” Flint Crepe Company found a small farm in Costa Rica to partner with, building a trusted, longterm relationship.
“We love it when people first taste the product and find that they are tasting something new, different, and, in many respects, beautiful,” he says. “When the product points people to a new way of being a consumer, a way that's healthier for the whole community from the coffee pickers on up, we've done our job.”
Meanwhile the other half of Foster, Jon Moore, Is cleaning up behind the scenes of the Throwdown, doing dishes after also MCing the event.
“Beyond just a fun event, we wanted to show that this space is for everyone, local shops and people across the region,” he says.
Jake Carah, the author of this article and regretful hipster, stands before the espresso machines at Flint Crepe Company servicing his caffeine addiction.
Full disclosure, this reporter is a barista at Flint Crepe Company and competed in the latte art competition and was promptly knocked out in the first round.