[Series Description: The Lemonjello’s Way posts are an intricate look at the many things that went right (and a few things that went wrong) in the story of Lemonjello’s Coffee in Holland, MI. It’s hard to build a successful shop with longevity. My initial lack of experience led us to try some out of the box things that worked. My eventual experience allowed me to tweak and refine those things.]
Between December 26, 2002 and January 4, 2003 you didn’t find me outside of my shop often. That’s not a lot of days to remodel and re-open.
Lemonjello’s used to be a bakery that sold coffee, so there was overlap in equipment but not in layout, colors, or overall design.
Because they were on break from school, my 4 original employees were often there volunteering their time to help get up and going. Two of them in particular.
We spent a lot of time talking about the excitement of a new coffee shop in town, what needs it needed to fill, and what we wanted it to be.
We made a decision. Everyone who walked through the door should be able to find a way to feel at home.
That’s a big big vision.
From this juncture, I can say that we have very rarely failed.
When we have failed, it has usually been big.
The other coffee shop in town, a block away from us, was a little more conservative. Good place, but some people didn’t feel at home there next to the stationary older Dutch conservative crowd, the bible studies, the prayer sessions, and the preppy annoying high schoolers. Those crowds had made it their space and they protected it from anything different.
I knew I had an opportunity. I spent a lot of time there in college but didn’t always feel welcome with my long hair, Jnco jeans, piercings, and multiple chain wallet.
I had my vision, but how do you reach these other crowds?
For Lemonjello’s, it just took opening the door. People were hungry for a place to build community with others. And they were more gracious and accepting than I was ready for.
College students were easy. They seek you out. They spread the word. Being a block off campus got us an immediate in with those crowds.
Young professionals were also easy. They wanted a place to work outside of the office and it was becoming more acceptable to do that.
The counterculture folks were a bit harder. Hippies, skaters, BMXers, goths, punks, the hardcore music kids. These were the people I understood, the people I’d see at concerts and other places I liked to hang out. But we got a lot of slack from the general community for being a place where “those” folks hung out. People would always ask if they bought anything. You know what? They usually did. They were loyal. They had their groups and they branched out to other groups. They weren’t judgmental. And they were more respectful than I might have imagined.
A lot of our more-adult-more-business-more-family-oriented-more-white-picket-fence-seeming regulars surprised me, too, by embracing everyone. The students, the counterculture, the weirdos, the guys from the mission. I’d start to learn their stories. It was usually people who moved to Holland, MI from somewhere else and were looking for a place with more culture, more kinds of people. They wanted a variety of age, race, background, politics, and religion so they could be challenged and build relationships throughout a community.
If they weren’t from elsewhere, they were locals like me who were fed up with the cookie cutter lifestyles that were mandated as “the only way.” Or they had gone away to college or for a job and were back and now dissatisfied.
Either way, it was exciting. Those were the people who would stop by with their kids when a loud band was playing or during a potentially risqué poetry reading to immerse them in culture. And a lot of those kids are still my customers as adults. They weren’t scared by it, they were inspired.
It surprised me, too, that the retired crowd showed up at all. Knitting groups or coffee and conversation groups would meet once a week and add friends over time. And they just joined right in. They encouraged the younger folks and got to know the regulars they would usually see. They got to know my staff and took interest in them. These are the pillars of the Lemonjello’s community. They are there to enjoy themselves, but they are also there to share their wisdom, to watch over the flock, to encourage, and to tell stories.
There was a day a couple of years after I was open that I looked out at the store and noticed how many different communities were happening in front of me in one space. And many of those connections started by meeting there. And many of them morphed from other communities because it was a meeting place.
By offering a space that was open to being shaped by its supporters, they came in and built their communities. At the same time, they funded a local business, provided jobs, expanded their boundaries, and made a huge impact on a city that’s slowly becoming more integrated, diverse, and acceptable of change.
In the process, many of these people introduced me to other business owners and businesses that were like minded that I didn’t know were in my city. Or that have opened since.
It is a risk to open yourself up to an idea that could backfire on you.
People could have taken advantage of the space or my hospitality significantly more.
I could have decided to give up when a few people made it hard.
But trying to stay true to that original vision of giving everyone a chance to feel at home has been rewarding. It has been life-giving over the years.
It was and is home for people when they need it. And it’s done that in a way that has allowed it to financially sustain itself.
And may it continue to do so for many years.
[Lemonjello’s Coffee was started in 2003 by Matthew Scott and continues to operate as a coffee shop with its own on site bakery. It also operated as a concert venue from 2003-2012. Located in bustling downtown Holland, MI, it is in the heart of a thriving independent business scene. It’s also a block off the campus of Hope College and a tourist attraction for those visiting the shores of Lake Michigan.]