A cafe can be so much more than a place to drink coffee.
Especially lately, cafes have opened up in West Michigan with art galleries, performance stages, banned book libraries, community chat nights, and more. The Mortals Cafe, for example, focuses resources and events around death – talking about it, embracing it, mourning it.
Newer to the scene are The Stray and Lotus Brew, two places that didn’t originally foresee their current state but were dragged into it by life’s circumstances. Now, these two cafes are already community staples that go above and beyond.
Cafes that double as alternative nightlife are rare, but play a key role in expanding Grand Rapids’ selection of nighttime activities.
The Stray was inspired by the VanKlompenberg family’s realization that there weren’t many venues open to young aspiring artists, especially those under 21.
“We wanted an accessible venue,” said Hunter VanKlompenberg, director of music and arts and son of owners Chip and Karen. The ultimate goal of The Stray was to be a space for people to come together, relax, connect and share their passions.
“We want to be a community point for people to connect, and we see people connecting through the creative arts,” VanKlompenberg said. From live music by local bands to visual art by local artists to consignment pieces created by local artists, there is something for everyone.
“For it to be sustainable, it had to be a business,” he said. After debating countless options as to what type of location would best support the environment they were trying to foster, they settled on a cafe.
“We all enjoy coffeehouse culture,” VanKlompenberg said. “It makes people feel welcome to sit down and hang out and not have to keep buying something until they leave.”
After being a dream family business for over ten years, the family acquired a building that was once a car garage in 2019 and began renovations. The process took over two years, with Covid effects in play until the opening in September 2021.
Transforming a garage into a welcoming café and concert hall environment was no easy task, but careful 3D modeling by Karen ensured the process was fully mapped and designed down to the fabrics before the renovation even began.
“There was a lot of redesign work: some parts worked for the music, other parts had to add acoustic treatment,” VanKlompenberg said. Many of the space’s artistic architectural elements also contribute to acoustic purposes, such as an absorbing floating platform that hangs above the stage in the corner of the seats.
“We were lucky that Covid happened before the majority of construction,” Hunter said. Despite a supply chain freeze and rising material prices, The Stray narrowly escaped the Covid-related issues plaguing many other businesses at the time. “If he had swept us aside unexpectedly, we would have sunk.”
“We received overwhelming support, both from the guest side and the performer side,” VanKlompenberg said. While guests enjoy artisan coffee, carefully crafted menu items and handcrafted cocktails, local artists can do their work in front of the crowds in an intimate and engaged setting that allows audiences to absorb the lyrics and meaning of a unique way.
“You have an idea in your head of who’s coming,” VanKlompenberg said. The first year of music, events, coffee and drinks was a resounding success, bringing guests and audiences out of the carpentry. “We couldn’t have imagined who we would meet along the way.”
The creative menu is updated seasonally, with ten percent of proceeds from summer specials going to the Harbor Humane Society, an animal shelter partnership matching the cafe’s name.
“We aim to inspire, and also to be inspired,” VanKlompenberg said. They welcome and celebrate all types of artists and guests, hosting board game nights and live art performances, in addition to live music every weekend, always keeping in mind their goal to be an accessible and welcoming place. “We want to be a space open to a variety of people, no matter your background.”
Lotus Brew Coffee / Dry Bar
Another cafe that does more than just coffee is Lotus Brew Coffee and Dry Bar. What started as a bike cafe making pop-up appearances at the Fulton Street Farmer’s Market in early 2019 has now grown into a thriving LGBTQ+ cafe and teahouse, doubles as a mocktail and dry bar.
Owner Max Freeman gained customer service, business and retail experience while moving around town on the East Coast, and after deciding to move back to his original Grand Rapids home, started his coffee-bike.
He thought his next stop was a coffee van, and despite having the down payment, equipment, and budget ready for a van, his plans changed when the owner of the Communitea Wellness space approached him to fill the street. from the yoga and massage studio.
“There’s been a huge outcry from the community for alternative nightlife,” Freeman said. Although the fair trade coffee and tea shop was a huge success, he saw a need for evening alternatives. “There are only bars for nightlife.”
Whether someone chooses not to drink, can’t drink for medical reasons, or just doesn’t like the bar scene, Lotus Brew has plenty of handcrafted mocktails, which Freeman says are more than soda. and simple syrup.
Still, the evenings are busier than the day, which is atypical for a coffee shop, but the community loves the drawing socials, tarot readings, board game nights, and trying out the monthly “Secret Gay Coffee Club” specials. “.
“It’s not a secret, but if it’s a secret, it’s the worst kept,” Freeman said. Twenty percent of the revenue from the “secret” club’s posted promotions goes to an organization that does great work in the community.
With the community always at the forefront of Lotus Brew’s attention, Freeman has launched a pay-it-forward style “cup of kindness” that struggling customers can request and receive for free, no questions asked.
“Seeing this struggle within our neighborhood and our community broke me,” Freeman said. He was inspired to create a pantry, for people to take what they need and give what they can.
One of the main attractions, besides coffee, tea and community, is the library of forbidden books. Along with the many other social issues that drive his efforts, Freeman decided to start the Banned Books Library as a reaction to the censorship of books by various authors.
“What’s a story for one person may be a survival guide for someone else,” Freeman said. It houses a myriad of resources related to LGBTQ+ issues, including those for parents. It’s all given, free, and honor-driven. “I don’t have the heart to limit this.”
“People find a safe, supportive and friendly place here,” Freeman said. Whatever aspect of Lotus Brew draws customers to the shop, there’s something for everyone in the casual alternative space.