Food Service & Agriculture, Real Estate, and Retail

New Eastown eatery is a fluid concept

That Early Bird Café will feature both coffee and food, but must appeal to the neighborhood.

March 11, 2016
| By Pat Evans |
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That Early Bird
Coffee will be a key component of That Early Bird Café, but food will be an important part, too. Courtesy That Early Bird Café

Joel Wabeke occasionally wishes he could walk up to Kava House for a coffee while he works — but then he remembers he’s working on the next iteration of the coffee shop’s space.

“There isn’t a café in this neighborhood right now,” said Wabeke, who lives nearby the building at 1445 Lake Drive SE in Eastown. “We’re bugged about it quite a bit — we didn’t think it’d take this long. You need at least one coffee shop in a neighborhood.

“It’s not a destination; it’s a hub for the community.”

Professional chef Wabeke and Rowster Coffee owner Stephen Curtis partnered to take on the former Kava House space, following the departure of former mother-daughter owners Pam Murray and Leigh Vander Molen, and will open That Early Bird Café April 30.

Wabeke and Curtis had talked about doing a project together in the Eastown neighborhood for several years, when a realtor approached the pair after the Kava House owners decided to close the longstanding coffee shop.

The new concept will take a coffee menu similar to Kava House’s and simplify it, but not as simplified as Rowster’s.

“We won’t have multiple flavors of lattes but more like classics done really well,” Curtis said. “We won’t be able to be everything that Kava was to everyone. We’re opening a new place, but if people all demand one drink, we will try to reinterpret it our way.”

Wabeke said there will be a concentration on food, largely brunch-type offerings. He said along with traditional egg-and-meat dishes and sandwiches, he’ll work to include gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan options without substitute ingredients.

The idea of integrating the espresso culture with food offerings is one Curtis would like to bring to Grand Rapids. He said although he’s never been to Australia, he understands the food and coffee concept is popular there. It’s what Wabeke and Curtis call their take on an English pub, but with coffee rather than beer.

A similar concept in Michigan would be Great Lakes Roasters in Detroit, which serves coffee, food and alcoholic beverages in a communal space.

“We want to keep the coffeehouse vibe, but evolve and turn it more into breakfast and coffee,” Curtis said. “We have lots of communal spaces where you can meet people or spaces where they want to be by themselves. We’re adding to the space of what (Kava House) was by adding food.”

That Early Bird Café initially will open with fairly limited hours, closing in the early evening to allow Wabeke, who will work most days, time at home. It also will give the owners time to figure out what direction the café will take. Wabeke said they don’t want to open with a fully formed concept, only to find it’s not what the community desires.

“We want it to be a hub that people come into and treat as an extension of their lives,” Wabeke said. “It’ll be defined by what the people decide to support. We want it to be what’s best for the neighborhood.”

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