For many, a cup of coffee fuels their morning. For Brooke Fitzgerald, it takes a whole coffee shop.
Fitzgerald opened The Early Bird in downtown Cedar Rapids five years ago. Since opening her coffee shop, Fitzgerald has learned that creating a space for community is what gets her excited about work each day.
“We want this to be a safe, comfortable space, like at home, where you can have safe conversations,” Fitzgerald said. “We want magic to happen here. We want to create the environment for that. I want The Early Bird to have a cool vibe and have a purpose for our customers.”
Having that opportunity is something Fitzgerald is thankful for every day.
“One of the higher points of what I do is when this place is full. That energizes me so much,” she said. “The typical business owner might think ‘cool, the bills are getting paid,’ but there’s so much that is happening in these four walls, and it makes me proud that we create the space for that to happen.”
Consider Fitzgerald’s mission accomplished, as today — in a new, larger space at 333 First St. SE — The Early Bird is a place to be and be seen on any given work day in downtown Cedar Rapids.
With a background in food and beverage service, Fitzgerald had been working in banking for eight years before feeling the tug to do something different.
“I loved my job and what I did, but I was feeling like I didn’t have a purpose,” she said. “I was feeling unfulfilled.”
A friend asked what she would do if she could do anything. “I said that I would love to own a coffee shop.
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I always thought about it as something I could do later in life, when I was retired. But I started to put pencil to paper and realized maybe this could work.”
Fitzgerald admits the thought was intimidating, especially given that she was the family’s main breadwinner and provider of health insurance. “I mean I had a six-month-old at the time, but my husband was incredibly supportive.” So, with the help of her brother, Aaron Murphy, she opened The Early Bird in November of 2011.
“We started small,” she said. “I had watched some of my banking customers fail because they started out too big. I knew that if I didn’t start small, I wouldn’t make it. I knew we could grow into a space. If I would have started in the space where The Early Bird is now, I never would have made it.”
Fitzgerald said their small beginnings, paired with a knack for hiring dedicated part-time employees, quickly brought sustainable growth. They were on the lookout for a new space to grow into by year three and started drawing the plans for their new Early Bird home in year four.
Of course, the last five years have not always been easy, Fitzgerald admits. “To be a successful entrepreneur, you must be OK with taking risks and failing,” she said. “Every day is not going to be a great day. There are times when you think you won’t make payroll. You must have thick skin. And on the highest of high days, you can’t cash in your chips; on the lowest of low days, you just can’t be done with it either. There are days when I think this is the greatest thing I have ever done. And there are days where I ask myself ‘what have I done?’ ”
Fitzgerald said an important lesson she has learned is to only worry about your own business. “One thing I still have to remind myself is don’t worry about what my competitors are doing,” she said. “Just do what you do and do it well and don’t try to do so much.”
At The Early Bird, she and her staff have worked together to create an “everybody-knows-your-name” atmosphere. “We make the extra effort to deliver drinks to tables because that’s the level of service we take time to do here. And we want The Early Bird to be a place where you can come and feel like you can do business and see people you know and feel welcome.”
While the move to the new location in the former Smulekoff’s building was a huge change, Fitzgerald said this year brings even more changes for the business. “I’ve gone from working every hour of every day to now transitioning at the start of this year completely out of the day-to-day,” she said, noting that it was time for her be working behind the scenes operationally to help the business continue to grow. “It’s a huge transition as I was the only full-time employee for the last three years. But you can’t grow and expand by working in your business 24/7.” Fitzgerald now has two full-time salaried positions — one front of house and one back of house — that manage the day-to-day operations and open her time to focus on marketing efforts and other business initiatives. “But with the transition, we want the customer experience to remain as is. That can be a tricky situation when you are the face of the brand,” said Fitzgerald. “We want to continue to have it be amazing without me being here 24/7.”