What makes a great cup of coffee? Is it the quality of the bean or the company you share it with? I’ve recently become a coffee snob after discovering the difference in quality a cup of coffee made with freshly ground beans can bring to one’s morning. Since caffeine plays such a critical part of my morning, I also started to play with roasting my own beans at home to see if I could create the perfect morning brew. While the end result is not as great as the pros, it certainly beats a burned cup of ground coffee from our local gas station.
I’m finding, though, that part of the joy of that morning (or afternoon) brew comes by sharing it with someone special. Perhaps that someone special is yourself, alone on your deck listening to the loons sing before your newborn wakes up and life takes a sudden turn into the unknown. Or, perhaps it is catching up with a long-time friend that you rarely spend time with. I am now convinced that whoever or however you enjoy that cup of coffee matters. And, I’m not alone. So often, the local coffee shop is the core of a community.
This past month, I had the opportunity to chat with Big Water Coffee owner Danielle Ewalt about her venture in Bayfield. She and her husband Jon took a leap of faith and invested their lives in Bayfield. So far, it is paying off. While we have yet to meet in person, I hope to meet them someday when my adventures take me to Bayfield. In the meantime, here is the piece I wrote about them, along with some fabulous photos by Hannah that ran in the October issue of Business North Magazine. Enjoy!
Beating the Odds in Bayfield
Once named the Best Little Town in the Midwest by the Chicago Tribune, Bayfield swells with tourists from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Given the sparkling blue lake, quality shops, gourmet food and quaint Bed and Breakfasts, it is easy to see why this is town is a hot spot for tourists and businesses alike during peak tourism season. But, come off-peak times, the town paints a different picture. With a population of just over 500, many businesses recognize year-round sustainability is a pipe dream and turn off their lights.
Big Water Coffee on Main Street is one of several exceptions to the rule. But, achieving this goal didn’t come easy and remains a constant work in progress—something owners Jon and Danielle Ewalt thrive on.
As for how they became owners of the coffee shop on Main Street, Danielle claims it was “serendipitous.” The couple, who was in their mid 20’s, dreamed of opening up a café somewhere in Wisconsin. As they were exploring small towns to possibly build in, they found themselves in front of a for sale sign in Bayfield on a crisp October day. “We had never been to Bayfield before but we had heard it was a cool progressive place,” Danielle Ewalt says. “After seeing the shop we did some research and ultimately decided this was the place for us.”
By February, they were living their dream of operating a coffee shop in small town Wisconsin. “John and I love food and drink. That’s how people connect with each other,” explains Ewalt. “We love the coffee shop because it is a gathering spot for everyone. Anyone can come and enjoy a $2 cup of coffee and feel welcome.”
Despite their passion for community, keeping their doors open hasn’t been easy. “We had no experience in food service,” says Ewalt. “We’ve made a lot of changes since we first opened. It has been a steep learning curve.”
For example, the couple no longer offers made to order food, instead focusing on being really good at what they do—making quality coffee drinks. They’ve also learned to scale their business up and down, going anywhere from 6-8 full time staff during slow times to 15+ during the busy summer months.
Jon, who is a self-taught roaster, has spent years perfecting his craft. He’s shadowed roasters he respects and cupped endless cups of coffee to learn how to get the best flavor from the beans. The couple has also learned that when it comes to quality coffee, freshness counts. “Our freshness differentiates us from other coffees in the area.” This includes encouraging folks to recognize coffee is perishable and stamping their package with a roasted on date. “A lot of companies don’t do this because they don’t want coffee to be seen as a perishable product, but we recognize that’s what makes our product different.”
As they have worked through the kinks of being self-taught business owners, Ewalt says a welcoming community has made the entire experience worthwhile. “You really get what you give in this community,” she says. “Once people realized we weren’t leaving in a year, they found no reason not to invest in us. It really is a supportive community.”
It takes more than a supportive community to remain profitable year-round, though. As a result, the Ewalts have spent the past few years focusing on how they could grow their business during off-peak times. As the only local coffee roaster in the region, the couple saw an opportunity to expand their wholesale business. To accomplish this, the couple invested in new packaging that includes a UPC code, which is easier for other business to handle. They also hired a full-time wholesale rep, with an ultimate goal of balancing out the extreme seasonality doing business in Bayfield brings to them.
Despite this growth mode, the couple remains committed to community. They find ways to give back to their community—whether it is donating free coffee to local non-profits or serving on the Bayfield Chamber of Commerce. In fact, their coffee shop is just an extension of the community—a spot for folks to sip a perfectly brewed drink, break bread (their bakery items are fabulous) and come together.
Bayfield Chamber of Commerce Director David Eades says having this type of business open year-round is key to bringing a community together. “Having a year round coffee shop is vital to the life of a small town – or any town. Not only does it serve as place to energize with a cup of coffee and a scone before you head out on your daily adventure, be it sailing, kayaking, skiing, hiking, or just going shopping, it also serves as a gathering and meeting place for the locals to discuss the pressing issues of the day. The coffee shop serves as an anchor business for the visitor as well as the resident as they begin their day and is an integral part of life in a small town.”
To learn more about Big Water Coffee, visit their website here.
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