Work it Like a Mother

On November 16, 2007, I gave birth to my first baby - a cute little cafe with creaky wood floors set on a brick road in my favorite little city. At the time I had two business partners who built the bar from scratch, and the three of us worked up the plan for what is now known as Sparrows Coffee, formerly The Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newsstand, formerly The Stray Dog Cafe. 

Our only advertising before opening our cafe was on Urban Spoon, a now defunct online forum where folks would discuss local restaurants. It was 2007, which feels now like the stone ages of the internet. People were just learning what memes and gifs were, and we still were able to manage our time relatively well. George W. Bush was president and the first iphone didn’t even come out until a year later. Even so, on our opening night we had all five staff members working the entire time and still couldn’t keep up. Every table was full for 4 hours straight, and we sold out of almost everything. 

By 2010, Sparrows was all mine, and for the next five years I babied her and raised her and treated her as any doting mother would treat her firstborn. I lived for working behind the counter forty hours a week, and resented spending evenings entering all the sales in quickbooks myself, day by day by day. I lived and breathed the cafe, pulling shots, tracking sales, unclogging toilets. I established our business values as kindness, silliness, beauty, and tenacity.

I had always assumed Sparrows would be my only child, but then in 2014 my oldest daughter was born. The very first place I took her outside of our home was Sparrows, at two days old. There were mornings when I was scheduled to open the cafe, and daycare would be closed because of bad weather (thanks, Michigan), and she’d sit on the counter smiling from her car seat while I served lattes to customers. After she was born we finally put in a baby changing table in the bathroom and built a private breast pumping/nursing station in the office. 

I married my husband in front of the gold mirror in the cafe later that year, already pregnant with our second daughter. She was born in 2015, and our third daughter came along in 2016.

I know, I know. I thrive in chaos.

Raising a business and raising a family have so many similarities that it’s sometimes hard to emotionally separate myself from the shop enough to make healthy business decisions. The internet repeatedly tells me that motherhood is a constant act of letting go, and I generally agree with that. Of course I encourage my daughters to learn all of the common childhood lessons like swimming and bike riding, but I find it more difficult to let them learn how to do the more dangerous things, like cutting their own bread or crossing the street without holding my hand, even though in the end it helps them grow more independent and competent to know how to do these things on their own. Surprisingly, I learned the same concept applies to Sparrows.

In 2017 I opened a second cafe on Bridge Street because our Wealthy Street cafe was thriving and growing, and we began roasting our own coffee at that same time. Although the second location didn’t make enough sales to stay open, the roastery had the same magic as our original location. Shortly afterward, our roastery was acquired by Schuil Coffee, another family owned small business in Grand Rapids, and our quality and credibility have improved beyond what I would have ever even dreamed possible. If you had asked me even one year prior to that sale if selling would ever be an option, I would have politely explained that I don’t need anyone else’s help, thank you very much. But as it turns out, business ownership also takes a village.

I am continually learning that adapting and course-correcting are all part of the growth and stability of a business. Getting attached to the way things are and not staying open to creative solutions has certainly held me back in the past, and I’ve found that embracing change and stepping out of my comfort zone in both business ownership as well as motherhood has saved my ass multiple times. 

So now I’m writing this while sitting in my empty cafe during the COVID-19 pandemic, reminding myself of all of the lessons I’ve learned over the last thirteen years, while my now six year-old daughter draws a picture of the Sparrows storefront beside me. The uncertainty of the future of Sparrows now matches the uncertainty that parenting has always held, and it turns out the resiliency inherent in business ownership and motherhood have been preparing me for this all along. Although the cafe is closed for now, our hearts continue to stay open and ready for whatever comes next.