As the gusts of wind tear through downtown Muskegon, the people start coming.
They tumble from cars, tighten their coats and put their heads down, struggling against the storm until they reach the door of 794 Pine St. in downtown Muskegon. There, underneath a tin ceiling crafted a century ago and framed by giant windows covered in sheets of plastic, they curl their hands around cups of coffee and shout greetings to one another, laughing as they untangle wind-snarled hair.
It’s a crowd filled with city officials and business leaders, children playing tag and poets who live nearby. And they’re all there to say: welcome.
More than 100 people gathered for Aldea Coffee’s crowdfunding launch party this past Sunday, Feb. 24, when Aldea’s owners and employees gave the public a sneak peek at the NorthTown 794 building, the former home of Al Perri Furniture that Muskegon businessman John Essex is transforming into three levels of drinking, dining and office space. In addition to being home to Aldea’s new cafe, the century-old building will house Rake Beer Project, Redmon’s Kitchen & Bar, and Capone’s Speakeasy & Pizzeria.
“The event on Sunday is really important to us,” says Andrew Boyd, who co-owns Aldea Coffee. “We wanted to invite people into the space as soon as we could so people could feel like they’re there with us right from the beginning.”
During the event, the team behind Aldea announced their goal to raise at least $20,000 for their new cafe on Pine Street, which is slated to open sometime in 2019. And while the event was in part about this fundraising campaign, the impetus behind Sunday’s gathering was more rooted in the idea that has driven Aldea since its inception: community.
Launched as a nonprofit—Aldea Development—in 2009, Aldea (which means “community” in Spanish) debuted its first cafe at the century-old armory building in Grand Haven in 2015. A development organization that works to empower the farmers and families of La Unión, Lempira, Honduras through microloans, market access, community partnership projects, and more, the nonprofit partners with Honduran farmers to bring their coffee to West Michigan. Here, the coffee is roasted in Aldea’s facility in Muskegon Heights and sold throughout the region. Aldea Coffee too has sold its goods at the Muskegon Farmers Market for nearly a decade.
“We don’t consider ourselves a coffee company,” says Jeremy Miller, a co-owner of Aldea Coffee. “We look at ourselves as a community development organization. Our coffee company that grew out of our nonprofit stays with that root of Aldea, meaning community. That’s why we’re excited about being present here in downtown Muskegon. It will allow us to have a permanent presence here and give a place for people to come and share their lives with us.”
It’s this sentiment that has drawn praise from top-level officials in Muskegon, including Mayor Stephen Gawron.
“I think their focus on not just the mission of serving the coffee but actually serving the people who grow the coffee through their nonprofit is a phenomenal reflection of who they are as people,” says Gawron, who attended Sunday’s gathering. “It’s not just about the coffee, it’s about the people—and they have a darn good quality product. When you’re standing amidst them, it’s like hanging out with your family. They are such a warm and sincere gathering at Aldea.”
Aldea is hoping to open its Muskegon cafe sometime in the summer, though no official date has been set. When the cafe does open, it will offer its ethically sourced coffee, house-made syrups, baked goods from Laughing Tree Brick Oven Bakery, organic loose-leaf teas, and more. Alongside its owners Boyd and Miller, Aldea Coffee’s full-time team consists of Josh Manzer, Angie Stone, Elly Bollweg, Daniel Bollweg, and Brittany Goode.
Miller notes that, in addition to opening the Pine Street cafe and continuing to sell their coffee at the Muskegon Farmers Market, they plan to further involve themselves in the community by hiring employees from Muskegon and looking to purchase a place in Muskegon Heights for their roasting and baking operations. Currently, Aldea is in the process of moving their roasting facility at 309 E. Broadway in Muskegon Heights to a rental space on Peck Street, just across from City Hall. There, they’ll expand from solely roasting to roasting and baking. Ultimately, they plan to open a cafe in Muskegon Heights.
For the whole team behind Aldea, the Pine Street cafe is, in many ways, a chance to expand their Muskegon roots that allowed them to debut their first-ever coffee shop in Grand Haven.
“When the Muskegon Farmers Market changed from Yuba Street to downtown, our sales went up three or fourfold,” Boyd says. “That move was a huge boost to us and to a lot of people. That’s what helped give us the confidence to move to a brick-and-mortar setting.”
Now, several years after opening that first shop, Boyd and Miller say their incoming cafe in Muskegon is the culmination of a dream they’ve had for nearly a decade, since beginning to operate at the farmers market.
“I’m very excited to get started in Muskegon,” Boyd says. “I’m excited to see the connection that it creates up and down the Lakeshore with people. I know there’s a lot of cool, new people we’ll meet in the Muskegon area, and I’m really excited to have a place where people can congregate and be inspired.”
“Muskegon is unique,” he continues. “There’s something in the air, something about seeing the potential of the downtown. I think the opportunity is rare to be able to step into a community that’s reinventing itself and finding its potential.”
Now, after working with organizations at the city and county level, including Downtown Muskegon and the County of Muskegon’s economic development office, to find a space, the team behind Aldea says reality is setting in: their Muskegon cafe is, after years of dreaming about it, truly happening. And while the goods will be similar to what is sold in Grand Haven, the Muskegon cafe itself will be its own community, the owners note.
“At the armory, we close at six because that’s when the brewery and barbeque get going,” Boyd says. “At Pine Street, the hours will probably be much later—we really want to use that to invest in evening type events, whether that’s poetry readings or book clubs or game nights and film nights.”
As in its Grand Haven space, Aldea’s Muskegon venue will be a place where all are welcome, even if you don’t want to buy anything.
“It’s a space you can come into, and there’s never going to be pressure to purchase anything; we just want you there,” Boyd says. “If your doctor told you you can’t drink coffee right now, we don’t want that to be a reason you can’t be here. We have people in Grand Haven who stay six, eight hours a day. People can work there; the internet doesn’t time out every hour.”
As for the cafe’s interior, it will allow for everyone from large groups to individuals who want to hunker down and get some work done. There will be two-seater “quiet tables,” tables for four to six people, and a couple larger tables for “people who want to come in and have meetings,” Boyd explains.
“It’s going to be clean and minimal but extremely comfortable and cozy,” he adds of the decor.
Becoming rooted in a growing downtown—and city
For those gathered at Aldea’s event on Sunday, the arrival of the new coffee shop is indeed about community—but it’s also emblematic of the city’s changing business landscape, of the economic growth that’s visible beyond downtown’s Western Avenue.
“It’s something I’ve really hoped for over the past 17 years,” Gawron sayst. “While there’s a lot of focus on what was viewed as the main business district on Western Avenue, my hope has always been that we start seeing the energy spread up the tributaries, on Third Street and now on Pine Street.”
“You put a lot of energy in one spot, and that’s what we’ve been doing on Western Avenue, and you get to a certain level that the energy and success start growing out from that center and eventually make their way throughout the city of Muskegon,” Gawron continues. “It brings that level of excitement and renewal not just to the commercial districts but into every single neighborhood throughout the town. That’s what I hope will occur.”
In other words: close to two decades after the Muskegon Mall was torn down, leaving in its place a series of dirt roads and few shops, Western Avenue is filled with activity that’s prompting an economic domino effect, from the incoming businesses on Pine Street to recent shop openings on Third Street in Midtown.
“At the city government level, we have our eyes set further afield with upcoming plans to help reinvigorate the legacy commercial districts throughout the city,” Gawron says. “Those become the little downtowns and centers of each one of our neighborhoods, be it Lakeside or revitalizing the Getty Street strip. There are multiple areas that are prime for renewal and rebirth.”
Mark Boertman, who owns Toast ‘N James in Norton Shores, agrees that Aldea Coffee’s debut in Muskegon is a sign that commercial success is spreading throughout the city.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes here: my wife and I had just gotten married when we watched the Occidental Hotel implode from Hackley Park,” Boertman, who carries Aldea Coffee at Toast ‘N James and too attended Sunday’s event, says of the iconic downtown structure that was torn down in 1975 to make way for the indoor mall.
“As a child, the downtown was the center; this is where we went to buy anything,” he continues. “The Regent and the Michigan Theater were here. The mall was cool when we were young. Then downtown just dwindled. Now, it’s exciting to see the renaissance happening here, the diversity of businesses and the people living down here.”
A ‘community kitchen table’
As Drip Drop Drink, a downtown cafe that opened on Second Street after operating in the historic Russell Block building, now does, Aldea will serve as much of a metaphorical kitchen table—a place where all are welcome to gather, break bread and raise their cups of coffee to new and old friends alike, the mayor emphasizes.
“When you make a place like Aldea’s, and like Todd [Johnson] has created at Drip Drop, it becomes a community kitchen table, where we get to pass that time together with people we know and where we make new friends, where we can expand our community family,” Gawron says.
This, the team behind Aldea says, is exactly what they’re looking to do: link people in Muskegon and the Lakeshore, as well as connect the community here to the farmers and families in Honduras. In many ways, the space that’s about to emerge at NorthTown 794 is a reminder that we’re all in this together, that our existence touches the lives of so many we know—and so many we don’t.
“Having a brick-and-mortar is really cool; you cannot comprehend the people you’re going to meet and get to know until you actually do it and how much that’s going to impact you,” Boyd says. “There are so many people doing so many cool things here. We went from having a couple friends here to a couple thousand because of Aldea.”
And, Gawron notes, because of spaces like Aldea serving as a community kitchen, they in turn transform Muskegon’s streets into something akin to the city’s living room.
“Over across the pond, in some countries there’s a cafe culture, and it’s an exceptional, mystical place to go,” Gawron says. “I think we have a real opportunity now to expand on that. It enlivens the streets; it brings more people in to engage with each other. I think we have a real opportunity to expand and celebrate more of our downtown.”
“When Baron Haussmann designed the new Paris, it was high density, balconies overlooking the streets, and the streets became the living room,” Gawron continues. “We have an opportunity to do that in Muskegon.”
Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Photos by Anna Gustafson, unless otherwise noted. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.