116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CORALVILLE — Coffee Emporium, a cafe in downtown Cedar Rapids since 1991, has expanded, going into Coralville’s Iowa River Landing, near Von Maur. But unlike many chains, the new location is more than a duplication of its first location.
“The copy, paste mentality is great for chains,” co-owner Abby White said, “but it’s not the vibe we’re going for.”
White, who took over the Cedar Rapids location from previous owner Robin Morris in February, didn’t initially envision branching out with a second location.
“I thought it would be a one and done in Cedar Rapids,” she said.
But after the opportunity arose, she joined forces with top Iowa mixologist and childhood friend John Sladek. Now, the pair of twenty-somethings are working to build a foundation for a cafe brand with an eye toward more potential expansion in the future.
“It was my dream to open a coffee and cocktail spot,” said Sladek, 27. “I was Iowa’s top mixologist for a couple years, so I thought I’d double down and do something fun.”
“I personally just have a huge love for coffee and the craft of coffee,” said White, 26, who also serves as CEO of Gro Human Resources Consulting. “I knew it was something that would be not difficult to take on and add to the HR and capital side.”
Coffee Emporium in Coralville imbues a light, bright, airy atmosphere with sidewalk tables, a cerulean blue couch, local art and plants galore.
What: Coffee Emporium
Where: 925 E. Second Ave., Coralville
Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Details: Coffee Emporium’s location in Coralville offers the same custom roasts and food in Cedar Rapids, alongside a new cocktail menu and gelato. Plans are to add more cocktails and other things to nibble on, like charcuterie boards.
While the Cedar Rapids location has more of a cafe and bakery style in a business-oriented district, the Coralville location is modeled after a European cafe in the district with plenty of shopping.
Specific to the new location, you can enjoy a variety of coffee-inspired cocktails and light drinks without coffee. The market for cocktails in a coffee shop isn’t quite as viable yet in downtown Cedar Rapids, White said, since the shop closes early in the afternoon.
An espresso martini with vodka, vanilla, cream and chocolate can wake you up and relax you at the same time. If you can’t decide between beer or coffee, try the Busch Latte, made with Iowa’s bestselling beer, whiskey, cold brew and caramel.
“It’s stupid good,” Sladek said of the latter.
Customers also can enjoy a brewed old fashioned, a Tea Collins, a spiked Italian soda or a strawberry daiquiri.
While alcohol was not something White thought would go over well in the Cedar Rapids location, she said it was a necessity for the target demographics in Coralville’s leisurely district. Sladek, who previously taught a cocktail program at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center, said some of his drinks are inspired by recipes he’s used for years.
Alongside the drink menu, the Coralville location offers the same coffee it does in Cedar Rapids, with a custom variety of roasts from Capanna Coffee.
Their variety of food favorites, including breakfast sandwiches and cinnamon rolls, also have come along for the ride down Interstate 380. All food and beverages are made from scratch in house.
And if you have a sweet tooth, don’t forget the gelato — also unique to the new site.
“When you go to the Cedar Rapids location, you go to try and learn the coffee craft,” Sladek said. “Here, you come to enjoy the atmosphere.”
One thing they brought less of to the new location is tea. For more tea options, go to Cedar Rapids.
In the future, the pair plan to expand their cocktail menu and add more things to nibble on, like charcuterie boards.
“We’ve created the ideal first-date spot,” White said, where coffee can turn into cocktails and a quick walk to nearby restaurants for dinner if things go well. If the chemistry isn’t there, you can end it after coffee.
And with different types of drinks, the location’s strength lies in its versatility to offer a quick coffee to wake you up on the way to work or a relaxing seat to be social and productive.
White got into the coffee shop business almost by accident. While looking at real estate in downtown Cedar Rapids, she had a conversation with Morris that sparked an immediate connection. So in the middle of a pandemic, the woman with no prior experience in the coffee industry took a leap of faith, with the understanding that customers wanted to come back to the things they enjoyed before.
With a human resources background, she said they’ve taken on a novel mentality in the restaurant and service industry that will set them up for long-term success by investing in and cultivating employees.
“Too often, business owners don’t provide for staff. It’s turn and burn,” Sladek said. “Our goal is to make a spot that has quality product, is a fun spot to be in. We wanted it to be a place where you can be a career server and earn more than a living wage.”
“As they invest in us, we invest in them,” White added.
After the pandemic hit restaurants hard, she said the paradigm shift gave many former workers in the industry a chance to get out, taking the soft skills they had and migrating to another industry to survive. But she also said the reputation surrounding the food and beverage industry among employees has, at least in part, hindered their ability to bounce back.
“Before, there were so many workers that you could treat them as a number,” she said, emphasizing their transparency with employees in building a sustainable atmosphere that produces creativity and enthusiasm.
Bucking the stereotype of millennials, they said they want to be mentors to the employees their age, too.
“Being in the ownership of it now, I realize how many restaurants burned me,” Sladek said. “We’re paying our baristas more than I was paid as a (general manager) in some downtown restaurants. It sucks to realize that.”
But it’s more than monetary, White said — it’s the culture, too.
Previously occupied by High Grounds and one other shop in the four-year-old Coralville development, White said she’s confident that their products, management style and ability to adapt to the market will bring them success. The Cedar Rapids location has gradually regained 95 percent of its pre-pandemic sales, even without the return of office employees to some major establishments in the district.
The Coralville location has seen success in its first couple months since opening May 15, hitting all goals set by the owners so far.
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