Food Service & Agriculture, Retail, and Small Business & Startups

Coffee shop rooted in community

Roots Brew Shop co-owners look to the future as popularity on West Side grows.

December 2, 2016
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Roots Brew Shop
Mallory Root and Austin Radebaugh see their coffee shop as a place that sets customers up for success. Courtesy Roots Brew Shop

Mallory Root realized early in her post-college work life she was good at one thing in particular: managing a staff.

Now the co-owner of Roots Brew Shop at 600 Seventh St. NW with her business partner and friend Austin Radebaugh, Root has been putting her talent to good use since the coffee shop opened in February.

“I worked in Flint for awhile at the Sloan Museum and Longway Planetarium as an educator. And I also worked at Spring Hill Camps. … I was an area director for their high school programs, and that’s when I realized I really like managing staff.”

Root said she wanted to create an atmosphere at Roots that was about “setting people up for success.”

“I don’t think that people in the workplace get enough grace and encouragement,” she said. “I wanted to provide people with an environment where they would know that even if they make a mistake, they can move forward and do better.”

Looking around her and Radebaugh’s 2,400-square-foot coffee shop packed wall to wall with chatting patrons, and with smiling workers filling drink orders behind the counter, it’s clear Root has been fulfilling her mission.

Owning a business, coffee shop or otherwise, wasn’t part of Root’s original plan when she graduated from Hillsdale College in 2010 with an art degree. But then a friend from Minneapolis approached her with the idea of opening a tea shop. The idea lived on in Root’s mind, even after her friend had to step back from the plan for personal reasons.

“I had never had a job at a coffee shop,” she said. “Then for awhile, I managed a coffee shop over in Flushing. It was a really good experience opening up shop every morning. I realized there were a lot of things I could do for the community.”

Root brought those ideas with her when she moved to West Michigan. She and Radebaugh, an old family friend, began planning and saving for their coffee shop in 2014 and officially opened in February.

The process wasn’t without its bumps in the road, as the application for funding through Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW) took longer than they expected, as did the remodeling of their space at Seventh Street and Seward Avenue.

But the funding came through, and now that Radebaugh and Root have been in business for nine months, they are starting to see some encouraging trends.

“It has become the water cooler of society,” Root said. “It’s an easy place for people to meet and interact, and we wanted to build a place where people could build relationships and meet other people they wouldn’t have met otherwise.”

Root said they get to watch diverse groups of people come in and use the space in all different ways, from people on their way to work in the early morning hours, to business meetings in the mid-morning, to students in the afternoon and evening — “mostly med students” who are there to study.

She said they have been in talks with a couple of local bands about doing “stripped-down” live shows in the space. They also have hosted open mic nights and an after-school music program called Roots Will Rock developed by the Franciscan Life Process Center.

Root said the coffee shop is filling a need in its neighborhood, offering an affordable and convenient alternative to some of the downtown coffee shops.

“I think that we provide something that was missing,” she said. “It’s a good destination spot for those who don’t want to go into town and pay for parking. It’s as eclectic and comfortable and welcoming and warm as the community is. It invites people from other parts of Grand Rapids to come and visit the West Side, whereas they may not have before.

“And economically, we try to have fair prices, so that it provides something for people who can’t get downtown, or who can’t afford other places.”

Roots currently has four part-time employees, but the partners are looking to the future and considering adding more employees after the new year.

“We’re hoping to expand our menu and, as we do that, we’ll need more hands on deck for the lunch hour,” Root said.

For his part, Radebaugh, who graduated from Cornerstone University in 2013 with a philosophy degree, said he remains “confident” in their partnership. He said it is rooted in mutually solid work ethics born out of their like-minded upbringings.

The business has been eye-opening for both of them, Radebaugh said.

“There was a learning curve in the beginning,” he said. “Even this fall, with the students coming back, there was an unexpected wave of busyness. But now, we are able to keep up with demand.”

Radebaugh, who is the inventory and product manager as well as a barista and food preparer, said he has been surprised by the duties that give him joy.

“I’ve been in hospitality for the last six years, so I thought interacting with the customers would be my strong suit, but now, I’ve actually fallen in love with the back-of-house stuff, even when it comes to prepping the bagels and getting the soups ready — and especially making the coffee,” he said. “It’s been an art form I’ve really enjoyed.”

Radebaugh’s food and beverage “art form” receives an assist from Roots’ suppliers all over Lower Michigan: their roasters, North Star Coffee Company, of Hillsdale; Bloom Coffee Roasters, of Lansing; hot chocolate from Crave Chocolates out of Kalamazoo; tea from Grand Rapids-based Global Infusion; bagels from Nantucket Baking Company in Heritage Hill; and soups and pastries from local chef Jeff Gooder — who owns his own catering business, Gooder Catering.

“It’s fun to see so much talent and have a place to display it,” Root said.

Since Radebaugh said the “learning curve” is ongoing, his next step is finding a business mentor that will be similar to GROW and other opportunities Root has leveraged.

“(Root) meets with an entrepreneurial group on a weekly basis in the mornings,” he said. “It’s six or seven people who talk about business who are able to get advice from each other, like ‘Look, I’m having this problem; has anyone dealt with this before?’ It’s experience-based advice, and that’s what I want.”

Root said when they faced obstacles, it felt like a lot of “hurry up and wait.” That’s when they learned the most about patience, perseverance and faith.

“The Lord is really, really good to us,” she said.

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