This is Day 2 of a month of posts about how I found myself the owner of a pay-what-you-can vegan lunch café in the middle of meat-and-potatoes Midwest America. To learn more about the café, I invite you to visit the website or find us on Facebook.
December 2016. I was working as a barista at an indie coffee bar in my little hamlet by the river. Hourly pay plus tips. It wasn’t much, but it kept the hounds from my door.
I’d been there a year. They’d hired me because I knew the business, more or less, having owned a coffeehouse once upon a time, and because I was willing to work the early morning shift. I took the job because they seemed like nice people and I was unemployed and broke and out of options.
The things we say yes to. The reasons we say yes.
First training shift. I felt like a dinosaur. I was significantly older than my co-workers, nearly twice the age of the young manager who was teaching me the fine points of the pour-over and how to properly steam a pitcher of milk.
Yes, I’d run a coffeehouse, but industry trends had long since passed me by. I could pull a good shot, froth a decent cappuccino, but pour-overs were new to me, and my latte art left much to be desired.
“You’ll get it,” said my young manager.
Weeks went by. My latte art scarcely improved, and I felt pretentious discussing flavor notes of orange blossom or marshmallow with people who were not, for the most part, third-wave coffee drinkers attuned to the nuance of a particular single origin bean. They were yoga moms with Fitbits and double jogging strollers, pastors from the local churches, affluent parents and their high-school-aged offspring. They liked their coffee sweet and milky, with shots of caramel and vanilla, and I was okay with that.
I’m not a third-wave coffee drinker, either. I’m old-school. I like my espresso dark-roasted. Yes. A dinosaur.
A year into the job, then, glad for the paycheck but restless and bored, I was arranging holiday displays and making small talk with customers, when my friend Wendy called.
She had an idea. A proposition. A request.
She and her partner Matt owned a little vegan cafe that operated out of a church in the next town over. She was calling to tell me they were closing up shop. They were burned out, they were moving on.
“We’d like it to continue,” she told me. “We just don’t want to do it anymore.”
“Would you like to take it over?”
“You mean buy the business?”
“No, just take it over.”
“Because I don’t have any money.”
“You don’t need any.”
“Oh.” A pause. Then: “I’m not vegan. You know that, right?”
“Doesn’t matter. We think you’d be perfect. But no pressure.”
“When are you closing?”
“End of the month.”
I told her I needed to think about it.
Two days later we got together in the church basement, where they were cleaning up from lunch. Wendy looked worn out. Matt looked like he always does, hopping about at the stove, wearing a white conductor’s hat and a sauce-stained smock.
“Can I make enough to live on?” I asked.
“No problem,” said Matt.
“Probably,” said Wendy.
I looked around the kitchen. It was dark and grimy and in need of a good scrubbing. There were pots and dirty dishes in the deep sink and the pungent scent of spice in the air. I was waiting for the hell-yeah feeling to rise up from my belly. That feeling that tells me this is the thing. The next thing. The right thing.
What I felt was a tentative well, maybe...
“I’ll do it,” I said.
Wendy looked surprised. Matt looked relieved. “Let’s go talk to the pastor.”