After nearly fourteen years of operation, Four Friends Coffeehouse in downtown Grand Rapids opened its doors for the last time yesterday.
When Sara and I and our friends David and Melissa LaGrand opened Four Friends Coffeehouse in 1994, we had no idea it would last as long as it did. In fact, we weren’t sure if we’d be able to sustain it for a year. I still remember the day we opened, November 1. The night before we were rushing around “the space,” as we called it, tidying up the new supplies behind the counter, arranging the syrup bottles, checking and rechecking all the things we thought we needed. David’s brother Paul had half a store’s worth of ceiling tiles laid out on the floor, running a paint roller over them as fast as he could so that others could set them in place, still wet, in the frame above.
David had set a blistering pace for the construction and preparation of the coffeehouse, and we hit the ground running as soon as Sara and I pulled into the LaGrands’ driveway with our Ryder truck from Seattle two months earlier. We designed the place, tore out the floor and walls, and rebuilt it in sixty days. We hired electricians and plumbers. We ordered plates and glasses, coffee machines and pump pots, kitchen appliances and supplies. We established relationships with food and beverage suppliers. We basically worked nonstop.
But we weren’t the only ones working. Yvonne Daniels gave advice on design elements. Kelly Clark put up a lot of drywall. David’s brother John built a long bench with three old oak doors for the back. Sara’s Uncle Fred and Aunt Ginny and her brother Andrew helped us tear down the old and build up the new. Other friends and family such as Ray and Ann Kapteyn and Graham pitched in with both specialized construction skills and general labor. It was a huge undertaking that wouldn’t have been possible without the small army that contributed to it.
We opened the doors that first day at 7:00 a.m. and waited and worried. One of our first customers was Don Levy, a healthcare provider for David’s grandmother. Not a coffee fan, Don ordered a hot chocolate with whipped cream and proceeded to exclaim with unbridled enthusiasm to whoever peaked through the door that it was the “best hot chocolate I ever tasted!” Other friends and family trickled in throughout the day as well, but the place wasn’t exactly buzzing with activity. Still quite early in the morning, I took a couple grilled panini out front and offered them, in a quiet, apologetic voice, to the handful of people who happened to be walking down what at the time was a “pedestrian mall” — a street closed to vehicle traffic.
By the end of the day, we were all exhausted. But it was a good kind of exhaustion. We had managed to run a business for a full day without any catastrophes. I don’t remember how much money we made that first day, but I’m sure it wasn’t much. Still, the people who took a chance on us seemed to like what they bought, or at least they were too polite to mention it if they didn’t.
We’re In Business
During the first couple months, more and more people heard about us and stopped by to give us a try. Surprisingly, some of these first customers kept coming back, day after day, sometimes two or three times a day — and many of them never gave up the habit. Early customers such as Charlie, Terry, Bob, and Jim, along with others from nearby law offices and local businesses, were loyal to the very end, even though many other coffee places opened (and closed) downtown in the intervening years. When the first month’s sales were enough to pay the rent, we knew we had a pretty good chance of making Four Friends a successful business.
One of our goals was to encourage and support local musicians and artists. We hung paintings and photographs on the walls and scheduled live music for Friday and Saturday nights. We even let a few people organize monthly poetry readings, but they never amounted to much and fizzled out pretty quickly. The music, however, was one of the bright spots of the coffeehouse for us as owners. We not only drew on local talent but also brought in some terrific independent artists from around the country, including Jason Harrod and Brian Funck, Bill Mallonee & Vigilantes of Love, and Over the Rhine.
Passing the Baton
The customers kept coming, we kept selling our stuff, and life was good. But we were also pretty stretched. David was working full time as a prosecutor. Two years into the business, I started teaching English at a nearby high school. Melissa and David had a second child. Sara was still working crazy hours at the coffeehouse. Life seemed to be getting a little too complicated. So, on January 1, 1999, we sold the coffeehouse to Suzi (Borgdorff) Bos, who did a great job of managing the business for the next six years, keeping the original vision alive while introducing her own elements.
During Suzi’s tenure at Four Friends, David and Melissa started another successful venture, Wealthy Street Bakery, with their neighbors Jim and Barb McClurg while Sara and I supported them enthusiastically from the sidelines. Then, sometime in 2004, if I have my years straight, the four owners of Wealthy Street Bakery purchased Four Friends back from Suzi.
To its last day, Four Friends was a popular destination for downtown business people, students, and other coffee lovers. Sadly, though, rising costs of food and beverages, along with increases in rent and changes in the terms of their lease, forced the proprietors to enter into a month-to-month deal. When the business next door, a fast-food franchise, approached the landlord about expanding their storefront, the landlord gave Four Friends a month to close up shop.
Sara and I took the kids to Four Friends Coffeehouse yesterday morning for one last latte. Suzi and her family were there, too, as was Amelia Gritter, a former manager who also made the place her own. We reminisced about some of the funnier moments, a few scary encounters, and a whole lot of good times. I sure am going to miss that place. And I have a feeling that I’m not the only one
So many fine memories are burned into my brain at Four Friends — loved that place. Thanks S&K and M&D for all those great years.
I’m sorry to hear this Karl, although it was never the same without you and Sara and the LaGrands. But I will still miss it. Great memories tied up with that place.
Wow. I remember heading over there as a young teenager before and after rehearsals/performances at Civic Theatre, ordering 007’s and the best lattes in town. It was here that I was introduced to some great music, notably Harrod and Funck and Bill Mallonee during the live music weekends. Candace and I refer to the front bar stools as “the usual meeting spot” for when I visit from NYC. So many home-grown, locally-owned places here in NY are falling victim to the same fate, but this one makes me the saddest. Thanks to you, Sara, Dave, Melissa, and all the others who helped to make 4 Friends a place for great coffee, music, and, well pardon the cliché—friendship.
I read with sadness the history of Four Friends as I sipped from my vintage white and green Four Friends coffee mug. You all made that a wonderful place — the physical embodiment of the energy and vision of the four of you. Thanks for sharing it with the rest of us.
I have many fond memories of my days working with Sara at Four Friends and I still maintain that the best coffee I ever drank was made on that machine. Sorry to hear that the doors are now closed.
Oh, sad. I still have 2 green and white mugs for Four Friends. It’s still the only mug I reach for for my morning coffee. I’m glad to have been able to be there in GR when you began the coffeehouse in the mid-90s. I’m thankful to have been there in GR with you guys for a few years. It was a bright spot to an otherwise not so happy time in my life. And also, it had one of the best vibes of any American coffeehouse I’d been in. From the music to the decor, it had a cool and genuine vibe. It’s much like my fondest memories of hanging out with Karl and Sara.
Here’s to the four friends who created such a great place. Just too bad I wasn’t around to enjoy it more. Amazing what you were all able to do with a passion for roasted beans and a lot of hard work.
Thanks, Karl, for the wonderful historical remembrance of a one-of-a-kind place created by Four (wonderful) Friends, whose determination, fearlessness and, yes, toughness made me immensely proud. As I watched you four prepare “the space”, I never doubted that it would be ready to open on schedule, and it never once occurred to me that the business wouldn’t succeed. I also send kudos to the Four Friends for making their friendship succeed far beyond the coffeehouse business partnership, which is a huge bonus. May the Four Friends stay that way for a long time.
My girlfriend Bec and I were homeless for quite a few years. Our ‘home’ was the Monroe mall area. We would sleep in the doorways of the businesses on the mall. I personally spent many a night behind Four Friends, sleeping on their free concrete. We are no longer homeless now and happened to stop in on their last evening of business. We were shocked! Four Friends was the only homeless friendly business downtown. We would stop in to get out of the rain, use their bathroom, steal their toilet paper (sorry) and maybe bum a free cup of coffee.
The evening we found out they were closing was terrible. Old habits die hard and I asked the gentleman behind the counter for a free ‘memorial’ chair since they wouldn’t be needing them. He laughed and said that they were on Craigslist for $25 ea. We had enough to buy our coffee that evening but not much more. I sat back down with Bec and we discussed it at lenght (5 secs).
We promptly went out on the street and in true homeless bum fashion, panhandled $14.15 in the hour before closing. I wadded up the bills to make it look like more and explained our story and how we had aquired the money.
When he stopped laughing, he gave us one chair apiece for the grand sum of $14.15. We now each have our ‘memorial’ chairs that by the grace of God and Four Friends, graced our homless butts for many years.
Burt & Bec
Wow! Thanks to everyone for the beautiful comments. It’s nice to know that the coffeehouse holds such fond memories for people. I’ll certainly pass along these comments to the other “friends.”
Burt and Bec, I’m glad to know that those chairs have found a new home.
All I can say is wow, Karl. When Natalie and I moved to NYC in 1993, downtown was still relatively quiet. When we returned in 1998, we were so surprised at how much it had changed for the better. I think the four of you can take a great deal of credit in for some of that turn around. We’re going to miss it a lot.
It’s a shame that four friends had to close. Although I only visited four friends a couple of times, it’s very upsetting to hear the bad news. I will still have my Four Friends coffee mugs on display in my family room. I will still brag about Four Friends coffee house that Karl (my brother), Sara, David and Melissa started. I will miss Karl or Sara making me the best latte when I come from Philadelphia to visit.
Great post, Burt & Bec. Speaks volumes about everybody…
I just found out the sad news on a recent business trip to GR this past week and couldn’t believe it. After moving away from GR, I made sure I grabbed a drink at FF anytime I was in back in town. It was an immense pleasure working for you four, and I’m honored to have been a part of this amazing place. So, it seems I now own vintage coffee mugs and clothing! Long live the Italian Stallion (the drink). Perhaps you should relocate the business to Pittsburgh. Cheers to you all!
We have a whole thread devoted to FF on Urban Planet:
For what it’s worth, the space has been vacant for three months.