Brew’s location alone is enough to lure coffee lovers into this café. Set inside the City Opera House on the main drag in Traverse City, one of the crown jewels in Michigan’s vast play land, Brew is just steps away from the turquoise waters of scenic Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan.
The café has been a hit since the Traverse City Record Eagle announced Brew’s opening in the fall of 2011. The first day was supposed to be a soft opening. “People were lined up outside. We still had paper on the windows and doors. We had to take the paper off and keep putting it back up every time we let a few people in,” recalls Sean Kickbush, who owns Brew with his wife Melissa.
The thirty-something couple had worked at a Traverse City car dealership for a decade before becoming coffee entrepreneurs. The parents of two young children longed for more flexibility in their lives. The jump was challenging. “My mom put it best: ‘Why do you want to shake up the snow globe when you’ve got it all?’” Sean remembers.
Melissa left her job first. Acting as the general contractor on the build out, Melissa worked feverishly with help from her dad. “I did lots of the demolition. I worked on the walls and knocked off plaster,” she says. Sean worked evenings at Brew after putting in his day at the car dealership. Other family members and friends helped the couple.
It was touch and go financially when the started. “We had to sell our cars. Missy cried a lot,” laughs Sean. Fortunately, they live just blocks from their shop and walk or bike to Brew.
Initially, the Kickbushes had visions of serving lots of French presses, but quickly realized that wasn’t realistic. For people in a hurry, they decided to offer a seasonal blend for a dollar from Fetco airpots set on an antique chest near the front door. “When those pots run out, our regulars set them up on the edge of the bar for us to refill,” says Melissa with a laugh.
While the dollar coffee has been popular, they still do plenty of French presses and pour-overs. Brew offers five different beans for pour-overs made with V60s, Chemexes, and Clever brewers. Beans are sourced from Higher Grounds Trading Company, a roaster in Traverse City that’s in step with Brew’s philosophy. The Fair-Trade and organic beans are delivered year-round by bicycle twice a week—no easy feat during northern Michigan’s legendary winters.
From the beginning, the Kickbushes knew the business couldn’t survive on just coffee alone. Brew’s name is helpful in pitching the shop as a place to drink some great Michigan craft beers, wine, and martinis along with killer coffee, which allows the business to be open seventeen hours a day. Pastries, salads, and sandwiches are available, including a cherry tuna melt that pays homage to Traverse City’s heritage as the home of the National Cherry Festival.
Even with that variety, “Coffee will always be our focus,” says Sean.
There are lots of things to catch a customer’s eye in Brew’s 2,500-square-foot space. Brew occupies the street-level space of the historic Traverse City Opera House. It’s over 100 years old and the interior is sleek, yet rustic. Most of the walls are exposed brick, but there is one wall made of reclaimed wood from an old barn near Traverse City. When the couple discovered they needed more wood, they scoured other barns throughout Lower Michigan. The well-worn blond wood floors have a great patina and are original to the space. They “took hours to uncover,” says Melissa.
Brew’s name is helpful in pitching the shop as a place to drink some great Michigan craft beers, wine, and martinis along with killer coffee, which allows the business to be open seventeen hours a day.
Even the lighting is well thought out. Edison lights hang over the bar and sconces line the walls, giving off an incandescent glow. The tables are repurposed lanes from an old bowling alley in town and built by the Kickbushes son’s tee-ball coach. The ceiling is made of decorated tin. “It looks like a giant Hershey Bar,” said Melissa.
Art is an integral part of Brew’s culture. Work from local artists hangs on the walls and changes quarterly. Terrariums are perched high up over the coffee bar. Quirky, handmade Brew-branded mugs are made by Melissa’s aunt from Georgia.
In a vacation location such as Traverse City, the off-season can be difficult. Sean says Brew is well supported by the locals, and is a favorite work spot for the downtown community. To this end, the long bar near the front of the store boasts six red, well-worn bar stools each with access to its own electrical outlet mounted in the orange-and-white subway tile. “We wanted Brew to be a place where people would feel comfortable lingering or working,” explains Melissa, as she proudly surveys her busy café filled with families, tourists, artsy types, and business people.
—Kathy Belden is a contributor to several Ohio publications; she writes about food and travel from her home of Canton, Ohio.