Blue Strawberry owner plans to move on after 14 years

Mike Monahan reflects on his downtown cafe's years in business

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Since 2003, Mike Monahan’s Blue Strawberry has been a constant presence downtown, providing workers and visitors with coffee and lunch fare.

Fourteen years later, Monahan, the owner, still roasts coffee beans and manages the cash register when needed.

“I decided from the get go ... I would have to be an active owner-manager type,” he said. “There was never any wavering once I made the decision that was the way to go.”

Now, the 68-year-old plans to semi-retire and move to northwest Iowa to spend more time with family. He wants Blue Strawberry to continue, but under new ownership.

“It took me a long time to come to terms with the idea that I was going to sell this and move on,” he said.

He hopes the new owner, when one comes along, continues the cafe’s legacy, which he said revolves around the mantra “to treat everybody the same way you would treat a guest in your home.”

The Blue Strawberry has occupied the same first floor space at 118 Second St. SE since it opened. The decor remains largely the same and it’s distinctive hanging sign, modeled after those in the northeastern United States, continues to welcome customers.

On one wall, pictures of military veterans flank a large American flag. A sign asking for photo submissions hangs nearby.

“What I wanted to do was have something ongoing, something beyond Veterans Day and something beyond the major holidays that honor our military and veterans,” said Monahan, who served six years with the U.S. Air Force.

Monahan said he bought the space for the Blue Strawberry when the building was “completely gutted.” Downtown, though, was “ripe for an upscale-type coffee shop.”

His business survived two back-to-back disasters — the flood of 2008 and the Great Recession — and became a go-to for political candidates.

Downtown hospitality businesses were “just hitting stride,” he said, when the historic flood hit and “set us back to square one.”

“That was just devastating. It was a major decision for almost everybody involved on whether it was worth it to return and reopen,” he said.

For Blue Strawberry, the flood and recession put Monahan’s plans to open up franchises on hold. It was an idea Monahan said he never resurrected.

Like many coffee shops in Iowa, the Blue Strawberry has been a frequent stop for campaigning politicians of both major parties.

One politician, Monahan said, once dubbed the Blue Strawberry the de facto headquarters for campaigning Democrats. Many Democratic candidates occupied space in the American Building across the street, putting them in proximity to Monahan’s establishment.

Monahan’s favorite moment at Blue Strawberry also has ties to politics, but not because of the politician. During the 2004 presidential campaign, performing artist Carole King came to Cedar Rapids for a fundraiser for Democrat John Kerry. A friend of his, Monahan said, ran into her and told King to visit Blue Strawberry, knowing Monahan was a fan.

“One of my staff told me that there was somebody here to see me and it was just surreal. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t even have the presence of mind to ask for an autograph and she had to offer it to me,” Monahan said with a laugh. He gave her a cappuccino and she thanked him for his military service.

As for selling Blue Strawberry, Monahan said he doesn’t have to, but the time is right.

“This is the right time in my life to move on and do something else,” he said.

l Comments: (319) 398-8366; matthew.patane@thegazette.com

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