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There is no question in my mind, the seriousness of our current situation can not be understated. The health and well being of our friends, family and our communities hang in the balance. I know that sounds bleak and dark, but it's true. I don't want to imagine a world where local coffee shops don't exist, but in many towns up and down our state are at serious risk of losing theirs.
Everyday in America businesses close for a myriad of reasons, the fallout from a pandemic isn't usually on that list. Ask any small business owner and they'll likely tell you, even under the best of circumstances successfully operating a small business is a tough challenge. Simply because a business is “small” doesn't mean easy or cheap. It's a huge risk. Money is always short - there's never enough hours in the day - covering shifts for staff that calls off at the last minute, the list goes on. And without butts in the seats, it's impossible. If that isn't enough, throw another wrench into the works like a global pandemic. Having “the best coffee in town” is not the end-all and be-all of a successful coffee shop.
Struggling to find ways to stay open, many shop owners are modifying their hours and how they serve their customers. Sadly, some are even closing our doors altogether. Take Joshua Agardy of Pleasant City coffee in Mt. Pleasant Michigan for example, he is just one of the hundreds of owners of independently owned, non-franchised, coffee shops in the state of Michigan facing these tough questions. Joshua and his wife own Pleasant City coffee in the downtown historic district.
As with many of Michigan cities and towns, Mt. Pleasant is a place you can experience adventure by choice or by chance. Drive about hour north of our capital city, Lansing, and you'll find yourself in home to Central Michigan University and the Soaring Eagle Casino. Mt. Pleasant has a beautiful historic downtown, parks & preserves, unique boutiques, galleries and more.
To some people, a coffee shop is nothing more than a convenience. Like gassing up the car it's just the place where they get the drink that picks you up in the afternoon or gets their morning going, “I just need my caffeine fix” and little more. But I would argue that in many cases, our local coffee shops are the cornerstone of our local communities. To see if my hunch is correct, and understand better, I needed a front-line perspective. So I posed some questions to Joshua about how he, his family and his business are doing through these tough times.
The lines between home and work can get blurry or in some cases are completely intertwined. As a business owner, Is that true in your case, and how are you and your family been holding up?
I am a father of 5 young children. I and my wife and partner have had 3 new babies in the six years since opening Pleasant City. I have worked my shop with 3 different newborn babies strapped to my chest. My two older sons have had to attend grade school virtually, so they are with me when I work on occasion during the school year. Yes, life and work are a blend. In addition, I am finishing 3 college degrees this next year and half, in between meetings with economic development and running for City Commission, I can be see doing my schoolwork.
Wow, you have a lot going on! Have you considered the possibility of closing permanently?
Closing Pleasant City was a real time concern as we were in shut down status for two and a half months during the Covid-19 shut down. So much uncertainty around all of this made reopening a small business low on the list of priorities. I have one amazing employee, and my short-term concerns was to keep him working through this crisis. I came down to the community centered focus that Pleasant City set out as our mission. The small town we serve needed something to feel hopeful about, we needed a little piece of our pre-Covid reality to open back up again to give the community what is referenced as the third place in our lives to go to. Home, Work, cafés (Great good place).
What changes have you made in your business since the start of the pandemic?
I have made drastic changes in the form of the construction of a walk-up window for ordering and service. I have sectioned off 2 parking spaces for outside seating only. In addition to masks, and currently keeping all public access to the outside of my building.
I've heard many businesses missed out on the recent stimulus bill. Were you able to take advantage of any of the recent government stimulus programs?
We are and have been in constant assistance form our local MMDC agency. They have really reached out to let us know they are doing everything in their power to help us and other small business during this crisis.
Are you offering online ordering, curbside-pickup, phone-in orders, app purchases etc.?
The window serves as a curb side option and is my forward thinking if we have to go back into a lock-down, we will then open up online ordering. We take phone in orders now for our crepes and coffee.
What would be most valuable to your business that we as consumers can do to help?
Be patient. As we are in a small community business model, we are working very hard to create a subtle joy of comfort consumption that helps us all through our long days in addition to the uncertain entropy of the surrounding pandemic anxiety. We at Pleasant City are fighting to serve our community through the uncharted waters of this crisis.
How do you see the future playing out over the next couple of years? Are you optimistic, concerned or cautious?
I have to be optimistic, I have young children, but I’m concerned and cautious as well. My optimism comes from the spirit of my customers that are being safe and evolving to this new normal we must maintain. We can change our old ways of thinking and socializing. Cafés can be examples for other larger operations to follow. My biggest concerns are for the health and safety of our staff and customers as we continue to serve pragmatically with regards to safety in the Covid-19 pandemic. We are currently working on cold weather preparations and expansion possibilities to build into our business model for when the crisis gets brighter. I feel we will be in this pattern of protection for the next few years, so we need to get used to it, and get good at. We need to master this pattern behavior and make it interesting. We can adapt, because we have to. Giving up is not an option. We have an opportunity to lead through business models to ensure the public they are safe to practice consumer habits, which is vital to keep the larger economy sustained. Government's role in this is to back small community centered businesses that embrace this reality, the sustainability of our economy, in its current model, is not a negotiable partisan issue. Local economic systems are vital to the larger economy of the country.
What is your sense on the impact the pandemic has had on the Mount Pleasant area?
The Mt. Pleasant area has had ups and downs with a pandemic. This current crisis is having some casualties of businesses that were leaning towards closure prior. The local MMDC is serving to facilitate lifelines coming out of Lansing legislature. Capital reinvestment in our small businesses through grants is one of the only positive developments that has come out this crisis. These grants could help rebuild “Main street” better than it was before. The right decisions made by local regulator bodies could repair the open wounds that were already bleeding and seek to mend small town Michigan communities using the “Strong Towns” initiative as example.
Do you think Michigan is a good place to do business, as a small independent owner?
Michigan is the best State to raise a family. Opening a small business is always on endurance race. Doing so has been one of the best life lessons. Thanks to Governor Whitmer’s strong response to the Covid-19 crisis, we are as safe as we can be. I would not want to have my family or business in any other state.
Why open a coffee shop in Mount Pleasant? Why not somewhere else?
When I opened Pleasant City there was not an independently owned coffee shop. I want to create a meeting place to start economic energy after the last recession. This was my first venture into business, and I have since made the Dean’s list in the school of business at Central Michigan University. Opening Pleasant City changed my professional life. I have become a better community leader because of my little coffee shop coming to be.
What has been your greatest challenge as a local coffee business?
Our greatest challenges have been student population declines and marketing.
What made you go independent rather than opening a franchise with a big name?
Always independent. Independent means commitment to quality, service, and getting to know you community as your most important reason for opening a business.
What is one thing about your coffee shop that sets you apart from the big corporate and franchise coffee companies?
Our commitment to our local community is what separates us from out of town owned franchises. We are open only to serve the community we live and raise our family in. Making a profit is the secondary motivation, but always a welcome one.
In a later conversation, Joshua took me to church, so-to-speak, I got a real sense about the passion he has for Mt. Pleasant and the people who call it home. And about the good relationship with the owner of the only other independent coffee shop in town, Ponder Coffee. "It's not a cut-throat competition, like I'm going to crush you, sort of thing like in the corporate world. It's how can we find a way to work together to make our community even better."
“There were other shops in town, but they're closed now. A couple were open before I opened Pleasant City. It's really sad. But now it's just us and Ponder.”
Joshua is all-in on the fight to keep his and other Main-street businesses alive and thriving in Mt. Pleasant. In addition to being a Father, Husband and Student. He's also on the local board economic development and is running for a spot in the City Commission.
“My wife and I are in our 40's and we run around like we're in our twenties” he says “Being a small business owner you have do everything in your power to make things better for the community. Community is everything. Without the community, what's the point?” MI☕
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