Flint’s coffee scene is always brewing something new

FLINT, Michigan -- The ability of Flint entrepreneurs to continually adapt and reinvent business ideas in creative ways is a foundation of the city’s history. So it’s no surprise that, in recent years, a product that has long been vital to many peoples’ mornings is having a bit of a creative Renaissance in Flint.

A quick search of coffee shops in the city will return a variety of options, ranging from donut shops, bakeries, cafes, and coffee roasters. Whether a smallbatch coffee roaster, brick and mortar shop, or a business incubator site at Flint Farmer’s Market, the coffee scene is robust and wide-ranging, with a flavor for everyone.

Rebecca Walgenbach owns Penny's Cafe in the Flint Farmer's Market.Rebecca Walgenbach, owner of Penny’s Cafe (hours are Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), opened the business in the Flint Farmers Market on Feb. 20, 2020, although it was closed from mid-March through June due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Having grown up in the industry, the food service veteran brings 32 years of experience. to Penny’s. It had long been her dream to own her own business. She chose coffee, because “who doesn’t love coffee? Everyone loves coffee,” she said.

Walgenbach makes almost everything from scratch, including syrups, chai, and mini bundt cakes. She was immediately met with support from customers, including some familiar faces from the local coffee community. Rebecca recognized Jono Diener from his time working at Foster Coffee Company, and visits to her former employer, The Laundry in Fenton. She started chatting with him and Sean Murray about their new business, Rootless Coffee Co.’s roasting machine. “When I opened up, they would come in, and they were immediately customers, and friends, and really supportive,” she said. “It just made me feel really good and welcome.”

Walgenbach knows the complexity of coffee can make it a niche, but hopes to make it an educational experience available for all. “To me, it’s really important that coffee be accessible. It can be intimidating for anybody who isn’t into coffee culture,” she says. “The Farmers Market provides a really educational experience if they’re not used to European or classic style drinks.”

The entrepreneur relies on her inner voice, and the voice to guide her throughout life. A voice that convinced her to move to Los Angeles at 19-years-old, and the same voice that told her to open up the shop in Flint.

“It’s always led me to this better place, and I definitely feel that right now being in the Flint Farmers Market,” she said. “Even meeting the guys from Rootless. They came to me, and asked me if I would sell their coffee. They were showing me some pictures of the artwork on the bags, and one bag had the Twin Peaks art on it. That’s my favorite show of all time. I immediately was like ‘yes.’ It was extremely kismet. This was all meant to happen.”

Rootless roasts their own coffee in Flint, and lifts up local creatives including multimedia artists and comics to design the bags. Jonathan (Jono) Diener, chief creative officer and co-owner of Rootless Coffee Co., and Sean Murray, chief executive officer and founder, looked to a retail and e-commerce platform instead of a traditional brick and mortar.

Having worked in corporate and craft coffee environments, restaurants, bars, and breweries, Diener’s and Murray’s industry backgrounds enabled the pair to really fine-tune what they wanted Rootless to be. “We have a really cool DIY aesthetic,” Diener said. Growing up in the music scene, working and later performing at Flint Local 432, Diener now has friends who have grown up to own their own businesses downtown.

Rootless Coffee Co. features work by local artists on their packaging.“The cool thing is watching all these punk rock kids grow into adults, or kind of stay in this alternative, creative community -- and because of our artwork and the way we go about things, we stay scrappy,” he said. “We have retained that untapped demographic in Flint, which I think is really cool. People kind of feel like they’re part of an art and community project, more than they do just buying coffee from a place, and that’s kind of the vibe we’re trying to give off.”

Murray describes the local small business scene as a friendly, collaborative one. “There’s definitely not this weird ‘kill or be killed’ competition thing going on in Flint,” he said. It’s definitely friendly and it’s a great scene, and to bring people into Flint for coffee, they have so many options. Good Beans Cafe, the ‘O.G.’ of Flint, with Ken (VanWagoner), who is an awesome person, a great guy. He was the one who kind of pioneered the coffee scene in Flint. Ken has the back room where he does music. You have Foster Coffee Co. which is at the Ferris Wheel, where you can come in, and go to your co-working space. You have Cafe Rhema that has their backroom that has performances and private events, so everybody has their niche, and it’s worked out really well.”

Rootless Coffee Co. has done collaborations with non-profits, charities, bands, brands, and small businesses including Flint Candle Co., Flint Hard Cider Co., and We’reDough locally.

Ken VanWagoner, co-owner of The Good Beans Cafe (328 N. Grand Traverse Street) opened up shop in March 2000, and is a local staple. Over the past two decades, VanWagoner has seen the Flint coffee scene grow, and welcomes the competition.

Back in the brainstorming years of 1994-1995, VanWagoner noted “the coffee industry was ‘sort of passé, there were a couple of places here in the area for espresso beans beverages, but there wasn’t really a cafe like I wanted to present.” He recalled Flint being about 10 years behind the times, when it came to espresso-based beverages. He found a building in his neighborhood, Carriage Town, and 3.5 years later, The Good Beans Cafe opened.

20 years later, we’re still presenting exactly what we set out to do,” VanWagoner said. “We love to create authentic espresso-based, European style beverages in a very warm, almost-bar atmosphere. “The building that I bought, I moved a bar into it. Later, I found out that bar was the original bar from the Capitol Theatre Building, it had sat in their basement in 1927. We have a little bit of Flint history, and we serve LavAzza coffee, which is Italy’s number one roasted coffee.”

Good Beans has been open in Carriage Town for more than 20 years.Now, the pioneer looks at coffee competition as a good thing, and is quick to suggest other shops too.

“One of the coolest things about the coffee culture here in this area, is that everybody is very good quality,” VanWagoner said. “I always thought competition helped, and I never thought that we were at a point of saturation. I’m proud to suggest competition because we’re all very passionate about what we do.”

VanWagoner admits opening up his shop 20 years ago was risky, but has since seen the scene explode. “If anything, the coffee culture has only gotten stronger. I think there’s plenty of room for more,” he said. “Each one is its own sort of atmosphere, and its own sort of culture within the bigger coffee culture.”

For now, The Good Beans Cafe remains closed due to the pandemic, and “being extremely, abundantly cautious” in doing so. “I want us to feel safe and comfortable, and we’re just not at that point yet,” VanWagoner said.

James Clouse wasn’t always a fan of black coffee. But after walking into a Georgia coffee shop where the owner convinced him to try it, his taste for beans was forever-changed. Once he and his family moved to Michigan, Clouse began roasting his own coffee. Quickly, friends and family began asking for bags of coffee, and Ground Relief was formed in May 2018.

Clouse’s coffee has made many switch to black coffee, including his wife, who used to drink hers with cream and sugar. The flavor ends up being a fan favorite, and people often question whether extra sugar or flavoring is added. “When you get beans like that so fresh (most of the bags are roasted within a week or two of the sell date), it has the natural flavoring of the coffee bean from where it comes from,” Clouse said. “We had this Honduran cold brew that had this chocolatey, caramely, a berry flavor to it. I don’t add any flavoring, it all comes natural from the bean and the soil that it grows in.”

The small-batch roasting company’s mission is to help relief efforts against human trafficking.

“Coffee is a very trafficked commodity in the world,” Clouse said. “We make sure that wherever we’re getting our beans from is well-sourced farms. We don’t buy our beans from farms where we don’t know their story.”

Proceeds from sales made by Ground Relief help fight human trafficking. Locally, Ground Relief partial proceeds support Beauty for Ashes, Voices for Children, and the Genesee County Sheriff’s Department’s GHOST Team. “We really try to keep those efforts local, because there’s so much trafficking that happens here in Flint, and we want to support those who are putting an end to it,” Clouse said.

Longterm goals for Ground Relief include a warm, welcoming coffee shop. “I want it to be a place where people can come in, do a Bible study together, have a work meeting, play a board game, read a good book, or meet up with friends.” Clouse said. “We want a roaster right there, so people can see how the coffee is made. We want a coffee bar where people can sit and enjoy the smells of the fresh press.”

Ground Relief also aims to create close relationships with the farms they source from, and get to know the missionaries, pastors, and ministries surrounding the farms. Ground Relief coffee is available for sale via social media, or in retail locations including Homestead Feed & Mercantile in Clarkston, Cigar Fellas in Davison, and Great Harvest Bread Company in Lake Orion.

The Owosso-based Foster Coffee Co., focused on fostering community through coffee, opened its Flint location back in November 2017. Foster co-owners Nicholas Pidek and Jonathan Moore spent time in the area when they were younger, and even played their first concert in Flint. Once they learned about the Ferris Wheel project, they knew they wanted to be part of the local business growth story.

Located in the Ferris Building, also housing 100K Ideas, small photography and media offices, coworking space, and more, Foster Coffee has seen that story continue to flourish. Of course, the pandemic certainly shifted things.

“Our mission statement is fostering community through coffee, so naturally, that means gathering people together,” Moore said. “With that being taken off the table in a traditional sense, we’ve just strived to focus a lot on what we can do on an individual basis.”

Baristas and staff realized that for many people coming in for takeout orders, or picking up curbside, this was their only outing of the day/week/month. Moore said it was an eye-opener, and put a bit of pressure on employees to really excel at customer service. “We needed to make sure we rise to the occasion just to be hospitable, welcoming -- to be the good part of their day.”

Part of Foster’s business model is to support locally, striving to purchase inventory and ingredients as close to their locations as possible. It’s a pledge they’re happy to hear consumers making as well. “A lot of people have started to vocalize more than I’m used to hearing just how much it matters where people spend our money,” Moore said. “The choice between a bigger box store versus a local establishment has been a little bit more on the front of their minds. With more options being available, I hope it’s just a magnet or a draw to the community.”

For Pidek, Foster’s place in the greater Flint community, is more than to just provide a hot beverage, but to act as a catalyst. Often, their baristas double-duty as unofficial tourism ambassadors, city experts, and community spokespeople. A quick stop at a coffee shop is not only an impression of that city, but can also motivate a customer to visit other businesses, eateries, or entertainment venues in the area. Sometimes a quick coffee run can encourage customers to make a return trip, and explore more of the area.

“Bartenders, baristas and barbers are kind of the window to the community,” Pidek said. “You’re there for a moment in time, and you’re hearing what they have to say about the community, or places to see.”

Read more articles by Sarah Spohn.

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