By Jeffery L Carey Jr
Despite the travails of Flintstones, there is an underlying spirit–or as Ken Van Wagoner, owner of one of Flint’s enduring hangouts, the Good Beans Café, describes it, “a shared feeling of tenacity” where “we’re all a fabric that is holding each other together.”
He himself is a prime example of that tenacity, launching and for 18 years so far stubbornly sustaining an important hub in the city’s historically significant but persistently challenged neighborhood, Carriage Town. He has lovingly cultivated Good Beans as a welcoming meeting place and performance venue for artists, musicians, community activists and regular residents seeking a good cup of coffee.
Van Wagoner, now 56, was woven into Flint’s community in 1962 when he and his twin sister were born at St. Joseph’s Hospital, once located on what is now the Mott Community College campus. He spent the next 18 years living in Holly with his family until his graduation from high school when he left to attend Central Michigan University.
“School of hard knocks” prepared him well
His says his experience while living in Mt. Pleasant set the groundwork for his career in the hospitality industry. During his eight years there he worked at Elias Big Boy and another restaurant called Papa Don’s.
He gained more experience in the industry after moving to Grand Rapids where he worked in a hotel and helped an acquaintance open a new business. This work eventually led him to Indianapolis, where he lived until his return to Flint in 1994.
With candor he confesses it was the “school of hard knocks” that taught him and that he had no mentor to help guide him. He said it was not the two years he spent working on a degree at CMU, a degree he musingly admits is, “still pending,” but his own drive and experiences from washing dishes to managing a restaurant and everything in between that prepared him for his own business.
The catalyst of his sister’s tragic death though proved to be a defining element in the tapestry of his life. A boating accident that took her brought him back to Flint, back to his birthplace where he could take care of his mother. It was at this point, Van Wagoner says, that he took steps towards what would become the Good Beans Café.
He took a chance on Carriage Town
While working in the Hudson’s restaurant located in Genesee Valley Mall, he says he realized his need to move beyond what he had been doing. Van Wagoner saw the potential of going into what he felt had, “a better mark up,” the business of selling coffee. He bought the building for the café, on the corner of Grand Traverse and W. First streets, in November of 1997. He wrote a 100-page business plan and presented it to more than 20 lenders.
Laughing, he recalls, “I kept all of my rejection letters.” His persistence paid off though as he did most of the work readying the café himself while renting out the “room on the side,” which ran as an antique shop for about two and a half years.
In what Van Wagoner describes as a “soft open,” the Good Beans Café launched in 2000 despite the difficulties of its Carriage Town neighborhood, one of which was a drug house right across the street. With loyal and understanding customers he plugged away, enduring ten years of break-ins, smashed windows, and seedy characters. All of this, he said, was manageable until someone senselessly vandalized his flowers.
“They just ripped it up,” he said. “I could have understood if they had stolen them, but they just left them laying there.” The incident nearly caused him to “hang it up,” but his “customers’ persistence” allowed him to get through it.
He’s seam, he’s the patch
While the Good Beans Café boasts a delectable variety of beverages, like their classic Old Flannel, the café’s Anteroom has provided a vital space for creativity, collaboration, and the community. One could compare Flint’s fabric to a coat of many colors with Van Wagoner as part of the seam that holds everything together and who openly and generously helps patch others into it as well. This attitude is captured in his company’s mission statement: “The Good Beans Café, Constantly Supporting Culture, Community, and the Arts in Flint, MI.”
As Flint grows, Van Wagoner observes, he welcomes the competition, the expansion of the fabric, the “teeter-totter” effect as he describes it. “More businesses means more people move to Flint means more businesses,” he states as he gestures the up and down motion. “There is steam in the sails,” he says. “Hell, I hope a Starbucks opens right across the street.”
EVM staff writer Jeffery L. Carey, Jr. can be reached at email@example.com.