It is 4:30pm on a Friday and there is a small gathering of five people at Kathy and John Beebe’s Café Casa. A tall man with dark hair and a clean-shaven beard begins to lightly tap the keys of the wooden piano that’s next to the bar. He sits down and begins to play an old sounding piece that shows his talent. A couple walks in and joins the crowd watching the Piano Man. A few of the people seem to be regulars of the café, making small talk with the barista behind the counter. They chat about trying to learn instruments and tuning the piano. None of the customers seem to know one another, however this does not stop the easy flow of conversation that has begun around the piano. As the pianist steps away from the instrument, the barista laughs, “You made an un-tuned piano sound tuned!”
Unlike the other popular cafes that college students frequent in Kalamazoo, if you walked in during the week you probably wouldn’t have trouble finding a table to spread out your work. The menu does not advertise an abundance of Fair Trade and Organic options. And if you need to pull a late night, they won’t be open. But, there is something about Café Casa that has made it last for the past 22 years: community. The small crowds, the unique decorations, and the easy music make the scene, but really, it is the owners who form the sense of community at Café Casa.
Walking down the Kalamazoo Mall, among the rows of boutiques and shops, you will find Café Casa, near Amy Zane’s boutique. A black iron sign hangs out with the name inscribed. The neon light on the plate glass window lights up announcing that the café is open. Through the glass panels at the front of the shop, passers-by can look in and see the dim lighting and catch a glimpse of the bar, their view slightly obscured by a couple of plants near the front windows.
Stepping inside, the light blue walls are draped with handmade quilts. Further back, a jungle of plants along the wall draw customers’ attention away from a skeleton of an old wasp’s nest that is off in the corner. There are a few sets of square and circle wooden tables set up, and additional seating along the wooden bar that has glass squares with coffee beans pressed under the surface. The old wooden piano, with a painting of fruits, flowers, and faces, stands as a divider, separating the front of the café from the back.
Behind the bar there is a shelf of books, a collection of antique teapots, and taped up along the side of the shelf is a collection of around 30 foreign bills from around the world, such as Australia, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq.
They represent the growing collection given one by one, from friends of the owners. “This is just what evolves with restaurants; starts out with one and then just goes, and that’s just how we got a lot of this stuff.” John said.
The coffee shop feels more like a mix of someone’s living room and kitchen, rather than a café.
Jesse Duke, one of two employees at Café Casa, remembers when he first came to the cafe a couple years ago, “There’s all of this stuff you don’t expect to see at a coffee shop, you feel out of your element, but not in a bad way, like you step into another world– ” Jesse starts. Jeremy, a regular at the café, adds, “Kathy and John’s world.”
Kathy and John take on the bulk of the workload at Café Casa: preparing the baked goods, soups, and other lunch foods, waiting on customers, and keeping up with the constant cleaning. Since they only have two other part-time employees, the Beebes are usually the ones tending the shop, allowing for authentic interactions with customers rather than indirectly through another employee.
The shop has attracted a lot of customers from their kind personalities, easy conversations, and delicious pastries and drinks. Kathy has long curly black hair that is usually loosely pulled back, has a warm smile, and gives each customer her full attention. John is tall, has graying-hair, with soft blue eyes and a shy smile.
While some people would prefer not working with their spouse, Kathy feels the opposite. “Over the years we’ve had dozens say, ‘Oh I could never work with my wife, we would drive each other crazy.’ And as a young couple we realized that people spend more of their waking life with the people they work with than with the person they chose to live their life with.” Though this makes it difficult to separate work from personal life, Kathy said they agree to try to leave work behind when they’re not at Café Casa.
Café Casa opened 22 years ago when there were no other coffee shops in downtown Kalamazoo. At the time, the Kalamazoo Mall seemed like a good spot because of all of the business buildings and foot traffic that wandered past. Now, the area has changed with smaller businesses replacing the larger companies and the street has opened up to cars.
At first they focused on advertising on college campuses. But, the Beebe’s realized that they were only counting customers they’d have for about four years. So, they decided to save the advertising costs and focus on foot traffic, which would mean longer-term customers.
“You get a lot of regulars who work up and down this street,” Jeremy said. He is one of the regulars who started frequenting Café Casa when he started working downtown about three years ago.
“The people who wander in here are either hanging out at the Radisson and are just walking around downtown and they see this place, or its people who live or work around this area,” said Jesse. “If they weren’t coming here, this wouldn’t be a business.”
A blonde woman in her twenties walks in to order a bacon-waffle-latte for her boyfriend. “My boyfriend and I came here a long time ago, and he loved it. I got a job down here now so I thought I’d bring him home one.”
Kathy chats with the woman about the reaction of either disbelief or incredulous when people see the bacon-waffle-latte on the menu. Then walks away from the register with a smile.
“I made that drink up.” She said, referring to the bacon-waffle-latte, “It was inspired by a breakfast John made for me one day. And I just wanted to make a drink that tasted like that smell.”
Other coffee shops in Kalamazoo like to boast about their Fair Trade items. Looking over the menu at Café Casa foodies of the area probably notice the lack of Fair Trade options. But John says they’re more interested in a commitment to relationships they began decades ago. “We have the same coffee people we’ve had from the beginning. They’re from out of Lansing. I don’t see myself ever switching. We’ve use the same tea broker out of Massachusetts for almost 20 years. They put out a little catalogue,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s called the Tea Quarterly.”
He hands over a pamphlet that looks like it was mailed in the 1920s. A sketch of a few women in early 1900s attire advertises the latest tea brands. Off in the corner the pamphlet assures that this is the Spring 2014 issue.
John and Kathy typically go through a lot of taste testing before choosing ideal flavors for their coffee and teas, making sure they have the highest quality options. As Kathy explained, the vendor works closely with their producers every step of the way.
“The fact that things aren’t always labeled Certified Fair Trade, or Certified Organic, doesn’t necessarily mean that those practices aren’t encouraged or used. There are simply a lot of restrictions when becoming Certified Fair Trade.”
Jesse began frequenting the café about two years ago and got to know Kathy and John. He began working there last August.
“It’s really relaxed. My favorite part is how many people from the community come here, and so working here I feel like part of downtown, and I never had a job that’s been like that.”
In contrast with Café Casa, Jesse also works at Starbucks.
“Starbucks I don’t have this- getting to know a lot of people on a one to one basis. Like I wouldn’t be able to stop. There are regulars who come in there and they’ll hang out and talk, but I’m always rushing around and the focus there is definitely on cranking out drinks, where as here, this feels a lot more like a bar setting, where everyone knows everyone by name. I’ve had plenty of crazy, weird conversations with strangers here who when the next time I see them we’re no longer strangers.”
Café Casa is definitely John and Kathy’s world- the decorations, the business style, the atmosphere. “I know that’s not how a lot of places do things, but we just do things our own way.” John says. And for the last 22 years, it’s clear that it has been working.