Building a business, starting with the beans
Building a business, starting with the beans

Building a business, starting with the beans

Bethany Warren and her husband aren't just building a coffee shop . . . they're creating an emporium of community—"a connecting-place". In an old house-turned-shop on a small town's main drag, they are projecting—from their complex business plans right down to their simple cups of joe—a business of dignity, and a service that hints of its Inspiration. Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea Company opens soon in southwestern Pennsylvania, but Bethany and Russ have a story that matters far beyond.

Appears in Winter 2006 Issue: Building business
December 1 st 2006

I live in a unique place. I can walk to almost everything I need. There's a pharmacy right next door, my church and a college are across the street, a decent place to get breakfast is a couple of blocks north—next to the dry cleaners, and a pizza joint sits at the south end of my block. Everyone in my neighbourhood walks everywhere. Whenever I take my big, happy mutt of a dog on a walk, I pass an elderly man walking his tiny, Yorkshire terrier. Every day he calls out to me with a playful grin, "One bite from yours, and mine's gone." I've heard him say it to just about anyone else with a dog of just about any size. I pass college students jogging, little groups of mothers power-stroller-walking to their "Mothers of Preschoolers" meeting at one of the churches on our block, our local cohort of middle schoolers on skateboards stopping by the pharmacy for a candy bar, older couples getting some fresh air, a professor bicycling to class, or my neighbour Lou (who used to be the local mail carrier) going to the pizza joint for lunch every day—rain or shine. My neighbours interact as much as they do because our neighbourhood is fortunate to be under old zoning regulations that allow businesses amongst residences. How rare, nowadays! Almost everywhere else in the States, people must be isolated in their cars to get to a place where they can see other people. We have an open door to local businesses because if it.

But do you notice anything missing from our local businesses? Everyone here on College Hill in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, does. For as long as I've been here (going on eight years), I've been hearing the same thing: "Someone really ought to open a little coffee shop or something here." Whether it's because I'm up to my ears in entrepreneurial genes, or because I'm desperate enough for a place like that, why shouldn't it be me? Fortunately, my husband wholeheartedly agrees, and we have committed to filling this need together. It's been a tough road so far, filled with research, mortgages, planning, taste-testing, listening, and decisions (not necessarily in that order). Finally, we are just weeks away from opening the doors of the Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea Company. This is how we got from there to here, and where we need to go.

A major fixer-upper

Already lovingly nicknamed BiFC&T (pronounced "bifcat") by some of our target market, Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea Company is well on its way to opening day. The hardest part is behind us: the seven-year quest for start-up capital. Our first try at raising capital failed miserably, and I'm glad. We weren't ready, and our business plan was immature. We spent more time planning and researching, revised the written plan several times, and then found the most important thing we needed—a location. We miraculously beat out a few other bidders on a beautiful,100-year-old home on "the main drag" in our community, backing up to that thriving neighbourhood, and facing the college. Surprisingly, the location is commercially zoned. Not surprisingly, it was a major "fixer-upper."

We moved in a year and a few months ago (without any working plumbing, I might add), and did a lot of work to make it livable. We now have living space upstairs, and we are converting the main level into the espresso bar. A front porch leads to a huge beautiful wooden front door. The first thing you see on entering is a grand staircase and fireplace to the right. To the left in the living room, we are building the bar. Continuing through the house, the dining room has become our main seating area, and further in is an old addition that houses two apartments. The upstairs apartment is rented out to a graduate student, and the one downstairs houses our office, a conference room, storage, an employee bathroom, and kitchen. We and our tenant each have our own entrances separate from the coffee shop entry. This house is about as perfect as it gets as far as location and layout. We took it on faith that we were to pursue buying it for the coffee shop.

Once this house became available, we started looking for money again, and discovered that a residential mortgage is much easier to secure than a business loan. Unfortunately, even once we owned our location, we were basically unbankable. No traditional banks would consider us for a small business loan because we had no equity in our house, we live in an economically depressed city, and we don't have prior experience running a small business. But, after much frustration and doubting, we found a loan fund in Pittsburgh whose mission statement is focused on providing start-up capital to small businesses founded and run by young entrepreneurs in southwestern Pennsylvania. We fit their profile perfectly, and since they don't follow the same rules as banks, they were happy to give us our small business loan. After also securing a grant from the state that helps us purchase equipment, we can finally go ahead with our plans.

Almost, but not yet . . .

In all that time, everyone knew about our plans for the shop, and it was very hard to give the same answer to the same question for so long. The conversation would go like this: "Hey, how's the coffee shop coming? We can't wait for it to open. Do you have your machines and all that?" We'd have to reply, "Well, we are still looking for the capital we need to get it up and running." They just didn't seem to understand that we really couldn't do anything without that money: no equipment purchases, no tables and chairs, not even paint. We felt like we were stringing people along, and they were impatient. We were, too, but the drawn-out process actually produced one good thing: marketing buzz. Everyone and all their friends and relatives know about it by now. People knock on the door trying to get in for some coffee already. The guy we've hired to be our full-time manager has been approached at his current job at another espresso bar miles away by people neither he nor we know, saying things like, "Hey, aren't you helping to open that coffee shop in Beaver Falls?" It's good to be able to answer their questions with specifics, now: "Yes, we are opening in a few weeks, and I have most of the equipment. If you peek in the windows, you'll see the place taking shape."

In order to get to opening day, we still have to take care of several things. As far as construction goes, we are installing a bathroom, building a bar, updating some things to make them safer (wiring, broken sidewalks, etc), and doing all the cosmetic finishes. We do have a contractor, who happens to be our friend, neighbour, and a deacon at our church, but we are doing much of that work ourselves. My husband is teaching at the college and working feverishly on drywall and other projects around the shop. I'm in the midst of ordering and receiving all our equipment and overseeing the construction, as well as taking care of government licenses and forms, creating a menu, hiring employees, and taking care of whatever else comes up.

Something as simple as a cup of coffee

We have lots of great ideas, from general goals and visions to specific things like the color of tiling on the bathroom floor. Our main purpose though, is to influence our culture for the cause of Christ. We won't be doing that by playing Michael W. Smith on our sound system or printing "Jesus Loves You" on our cups, but by providing unexpectedly great service to our customers: the man with the Yorkshire terrier, the skateboarding middle schoolers, the mothers with their young children, and lots of college students and professors. We'll delight them, and make them want to come back because of how good their beverages taste, or how personally they were served. We hope we can show them God's kingdom, even in something as simple as a cup of coffee.

We know the city of Beaver Falls as a whole can bounce back from its ongoing recession, and it is trying. We are putting out a call for other people who want to be involved in our culture to take advantage of the unique College Hill neighbourhood and its zoning policies. We need a small grocer, a bakery, a florist, another restaurant or two, a clothier, a bicycle repair shop, and more. God has redeemed every area of our lives as Christians . . . and the way you knead your bread, or stitch a hem on a dress, or brew even this seemingly insignificant little bean should reflect that.

Bethany Warren
 
Bethany Warren

Bethany grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, but now calls Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania her home. She graduated from Geneva College with a degree in music, and now runs the Beaver Falls Coffee & Tea Company with her husband Russ.

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