When officials of government fail in their core duty to help protect the basic health needs of their citizenry, whether through neglect, ignorance, willful manipulation or some dangerous combination of those things, there’s going to be some negative press. Such has been the case in Flint, Mich., where threats to the careers of politicians now follow nearly two years of threats to the health of Flint residents during the city’s water crisis.
But there’s a sliver of good news, too. Just weeks after President Obama declared the crisis a federal state of emergency, Wildroot Coffee quietly opened last month on Flint’s East side at 1913 E. Court St., offering a community-focused café environment with a quality-focused coffee program.
After developing a roasting and coffee catering concept in central Ohio for four years, co-founders Luke and Karli Leffel returned home to Flint last summer, and shortly thereafter found an intriguing potential space for a coffee business. “We got together with some friends, talked about creating a community space, and signed the lease in October,” Luke Leffel recently told Daily Coffee News via email. Wildroot is actually a three-family affair, with Chris Sxumowicz and Jason Kotarski also part of the founding partnership.
By that point, the Flint water crisis had been receiving coverage, although it didn’t slow the business development down, offering no preventative short-term practical barriers prior to opening. “We’re using a bottled water pump system for all of our water,” Leffel said, “While it isn’t the best long term solution, it’s pretty affordable for us right now considering start up costs of filtration systems and the uncertainty of the current water situation.”
Upon opening its doors, Wildroot saw a wellspring of patronage, a sign that the water situation isn’t keeping Flint residents from going about their daily routines, despite what outsiders may think. “Day-to-day, things are pretty normal,” Leffel said. “Folks grab their coffee on the way to work, stop in for meetings, chat with friends and family. Other than the hype, the water situation hasn’t really affected many of us. We’re just going about or lives like everyone else, working hard and making things happen.”
The coffee happening at Wildroot is currently being roasted by Bay City, Mich.-based Populace Coffee, as well as from Fika Coffee in Grand Marais, Minn. “Populace and Fika have both been really great to work with us as we are starting and learning,” said Leffel. “Their support has been really encouraging, and the coffees have been super tasty.”
As the retail operation more firmly settles, Leffel expects to apply his four years of roasting experience to a more robust in-house roasting operation. He maintains relationships with numerous importers — including Coffee Shrub, Royal Coffee and Cafe Imports — and envisions a potential wholesale roasting program following a shift to Wildroot-roasted coffees this Spring.
The current, uncluttered coffee menu includes batch brews, pourovers, espresso, a latte and some specialty drinks. Other common espresso-and-milk drinks such as cappuccinos don’t appear on the menu but can be made upon request. “We decided to omit those from the menu, so as not to confuse or intimidate folks less familiar with the way we make coffee,” Leffel said “We’re always expanding our non-coffee drinks too.”
If not available already, hot chocolate and craft sodas will soon be introduced along with a full bakery to complement the existing small food menu, and multiple cold brews will be made available in the coming months.
“We’ll soon have some iced tea on tap, and we’re talking with the folks at Ritual Chocolate for hot chocolate. Craft sodas are on their way as well. We have a few different varieties of cold brew that will be available in the Spring,” said Leffel.
Inside the cozy-sized shop itself are warm elms and maples, stainless bar counters, and a light color palette to keep the space feeling open and vibrant — all in keeping with the community-focused approach. “Since we did the work ourselves, we wanted the place to be as organic as the energy we put into it, and the community that surrounds us,” Leffel said.
Interior design touches and workflow considerations aside, Leffel said, “Our shop is definitely for this neighborhood and we want our service to reflect that. We want to be defined by our hospitality.”
Nick Brown is the editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine.