Espresso bar or comfy couch?: How a coffee shop's design reflects its clientele

Do people inadvertently design their cities to fit their needs? A look at Grand Rapids’ independent coffee shops might indicate “yes.” On every side of town, new coffee shops are springing up—almost as fast as breweries.

Two West Side coffee shops are good examples: the recently renovated Ferris Coffee – West Side, 227 Winter Ave NW, and, one of Grand Rapids’ newest, The Corridor Coffee Shop, 637 Stocking Ave NW.

“Our approach is similar for all of our locations,” says David VanTongeren, Ferris Coffee director of retail. “We look at the surrounding area and the customer base that we will be servicing. At the West Side location, that obviously has very close proximity to Grand Valley (State University) so we have a lot of students. We also have a lot of neighborhood residents and business people. We look at those customers and ask what are they there for? A small business meeting? Students setting up shop and working on a paper for the afternoon?”

Integrated Architecture designed the Ferris renovation with input from VanTongeren. Via Design contributed to the new Ferris – Downtown location. VanTongeren will be handling the renovation of the Ferris Holland location with his in-house team.

“I remember when we first opened the location. It was kind of hidden on the West Side and didn’t have a whole lot of foot traffic,” he says. “Now, I can’t even find a seat down there.”

In response to this customer need, Ferris plans on expanding seating there over the summer.

The Corridor Coffee Shop has a different ambience, a little less high style and leading edge and a little more neighborly and nostalgic. Co-owner Max Friar grew up on the West Side and has lived there most of his life.

“We didn’t do a ton of analytics. It was more of a feeling,” Friar says. “I looked at the coffee shops on each side of town. Relative to other parts of the city, the West Side was low. We felt that the location was perfect. Look at the cranes in the sky. There’s a lot of construction and economic activity.”

Co-owner Melissa Somero believes that West Side residents deserve credit for the coffee shop opening. Their wish to have a comfortable community meeting place, where they could hang out with neighbors or work away from the office, set the stage for the Corridor’s initial success.

“Our customers are a very wide demographic, not one group,” Somero says. “We’ve got students and business-people typing on laptops but also a lot of families–local residents bring their babies and kids. On Sundays, we see a lot of churchgoers. We are not one of those coffee shops where you literally gasp for air because of that pretentious feeling.”

“We want everyone to feel welcome and I think we have created that,” adds Friar.

The building has an upstairs bonus space that accommodates 20 to 30 people. Before Friar and Somero had a chance to explore how to use it, River City Church and Stockbridge Business Association asked if they could reserve it for meetings.

“We hadn’t really gone out to solicit that, but we said sure,” Somero says. “We have been so well received by the community because they did want it. Our neighbors have helped create this space.”

While experts continue to discuss whether coffee shops are a cause or an effect of gentrification, joe joints, especially those offering specialty drinks, do require a clientele with disposable income. As housing prices rise in Grand Rapids’ urban neighborhoods, those with that income are moving in. In a sense, they are the ones designing neighborhoods that include walkable destinations, like coffee shops, where community can gather. As people with less income relocate to suburbs where neighborhoods are designed for seclusion and the automobile, the challenge will be for those city planners to find solutions that enable their new residents to be mobile and build community, as well. After all, no metropolitan area is better than the least of its residents—and all should have a hand in designing their neighborhoods.

“Anytime a customer is willing to come to your location and spend their time and their resources with you in that environment, it’s really important to be in tune with all of their needs, everything that they are looking for,” VanTongeren concludes. “It’s important to know what they’re looking for and be respectful of that.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor

Photos courtesy of Ferris Coffee and Corridor Coffee Shop.

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