GR Café Culture

One year ago this May Mike Sprite opened The Bitter End coffeehouse in downtown Grand Rapids. Today business is so good that Sprite, a former corporate executive, is short on seating.

Located on Fulton Street just west of Grand Valley State University’s campus, the Bitter End is tucked into a one-hundred-year-old building both grand and snug. Aiming to create an early 20th century atmosphere, Sprite and his wife, Helen, restored the original oak and tile floors as well as the leaded glass windows that now add to the vintage atmosphere.

They covered the walls with pictures, many with a French flavor, including an interesting sequence of shots taken as the Eiffel Tower rose above Paris. And, in a move that is reminiscent of such established cities but both rare and unusual for growing Grand Rapids, the Sprites chose to keep the new coffeehouse open 24 hours a day.

According to Sprite, 80 percent of his customers are students who generally want a quiet place to study, write, or chat. And they may want it at 3:00 a.m. Sprite said his busiest time is between 9:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m. and he recently ordered more tables and chairs due to a swiftly growing clientele. His customers, undeterred, bring along their own lawn chairs to make sure they’ve got a place to sit.

“That’s embarrassing,” Sprite says.

The Bitter End’s success is not surprising. The surrounding neighborhood is growing and changing and, according to Sprite, city planners foresee the area eventually redeveloping westward toward John Ball Park. They expect this section of the west side to become an Ann Arbor-like place where colleges, residential neighborhoods, and businesses flourish.

The Bitter End’s popularity also is not an isolated incident. Across the central city, Grand Rapids is seeing an explosion of new coffee houses. Most, like the Bitter End, are locally owned. But now even the corporate chains are targeting the downtown and its neighborhoods, providing one more indication of the exceptional progress the city continues to make toward rebuilding its quality of life.

And it's all coming together in neighborhood coffee houses, which have become bustling hubs of activity where people of all ages, cultural background, and political stripe gather to work, relax, and converse in a common space. 

A sign of vibrant, civilized life
The coffee house has a long history as a signpost of vibrant civic life. In the west, it can be traced back to life in London in the 1600s. But the grinding and brewing of coffee beans and gathering together to drink the resulting liquid already was a well established custom in Turkey prior to that time. Supposedly, the Turks received their first beans from Ethiopia via Syrian traders. Needless to say, the drink caught on. But like many traditions, the exact origins of coffee drinking are difficult to pinpoint and theories abound.

One story has it that a goat herder in Ethiopia was amazed at how his goats cavorted in a state of high energy after consuming some beans off a bush, so he tried them and liked them. Other research indicates that Sufi mystics were the first people to use coffee as a stimulant. You think all-night twirling is easy?

At some point in Turkey, coffee became suspect because people began to prefer drinking it and hanging out to praying in the mosque. And, as sometimes happens when something dynamic spreads fast, people in power wanted to ban it, thinking coffee drinking was a front for political intrigue.

But there was no stopping the popularity of this exotic drink and in coffee houses all over London, people gathered to drink it while chatting, gossiping, conducting business, writing, and reading the paper. Soon thereafter, coffee houses sprang up in Germany, Italy, France, and Holland.

According to most sources, coffee arrived in this country via New York around the year 1668. In New York, as in other cities, each coffee house developed its own atmosphere, slightly different from the rest. Today, the reasons people love visiting coffee houses in Grand Rapids are much the same. Yes, it’s about the coffee, but it’s also about the atmosphere of the place.

Still 'Friends'
When Four Friends Coffee House first opened in 1994, a friend invited me to accompany her to a cozy little place in downtown Grand Rapids that had computers in it. We could pay a little money to buy an hour of time on this new thing called the Internet. Four Friends has made some changes since then. But the name and atmosphere of hospitality stays the same.

The original idea for Four Friends was to have a non-smoking place where local artists could display their art and live music could be heard on weekends. Amelea Gritter, manager for the past five years, says what has always made Four Friends unique (besides its excellent coffee) is its loyal clientele. Business people and students come, but most are known by name.

“We’re small and we’ve stayed small,” Gritter says.

And everybody seems happy with that. Even as mega stores such as Starbuck’s, Bagel Beanery, and Beaner’s set up shop in the downtown market, business remains brisk at Four Friends. Gritter says that because Four Friends offers something different, a “place of familiarity,” that is uniquely Grand Rapids.

An old-fashioned gathering place
Located across town in the Cherry Hill district, the Wealthy Street Bakery provides an old-fashioned atmosphere and a distinctly local experience. Coffee is central, but the fantastic baked goods add another dimension. There are scones, muffins, quiches, pastries and cakes. And something else that I tried: a delicious, huge, triple-deluxe chocolate almond frosted flaky bear claw.

The bakery’s atmosphere is reminiscent of a busy, small-town bakery out of the 50s. It was originally started by four college friends. And Wealthy Street Bakery currently provides the pastries and sandwiches to Four Friends Coffee House. A plus for many people is that this place is family-friendly. Every time I’ve visited, I have seen children and parents. Yet, the bakery manages to attract a wide clientele. So there always are business people meeting, friends chatting, and neighborhood cops dropping in.

Find your spot
When I first visited the Bitter End, late on a Sunday morning, people were chatting and several students had books and papers spread out, some settled in for a long afternoon of studying. On another visit, my friend and I noticed how good the background music was, Harlem Renaissance, we thought. It’s the kind of music you can notice or not notice, depending on your mood. And set at just the right volume, which is an art in itself.

Grand Rapids now has dozens of these coffee houses, in all directions from and within minutes of downtown. Global Infusion in the East Hills district. Kava House in Easttown. The Brittany Café in Creston. Discussions in Heartside. It's a Grind, Four Friends, Café Solace, and others in the Center City.

For coffee drinkers, there can never be too many coffee houses. With each coffee house having its own distinct personality, Grand Rapidians will want to explore as many as possible to find the perfect fit.

Why not find a coffee house to suit every mood? One for quiet study, one for intimate talk, one for hectic weekdays, another for a lively Saturday afternoon and of course, that special one for Sunday morning. Think of this way: you’ll be taking part in a long historical tradition. And the city’s renaissance.

Photographs by Brian Kelly:

Bitter End coffeehouse - 11:00 pm

Interior of Bitter End

Bitter End staff Jackie Jingles (L) and Goldie Randolph (R)

Kava House exterior

Amelea Gritter - Four Friends coffeehouse

Wealthy St. Bakery

Restored tin ceiling - Bitter End coffeehouse

Kava House patrons enjoy the sunshine

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