Northern Michigan Coffee Shops and Cafes in Which to Linger

Northern Michigan loves its coffee shops any time of the year, but never more than in winter. Daylight breaks late and fades early. Temperatures stay low. Snow piles high. Good reasons one and all to gather in the North’s captivating renditions of the new American cafe from Traverse City to Petoskey. Here is our love note to warm venues that, for the price of a latte and a pastry, let us pop laptops and work for hours, settle into cushy couches and conspire with friends for longer than need be, strike deals and simply hang out because lingering can feel so deliciously luxurious on a frosty winter day.

Roast and Toast

309 E. Lake Street, Petoskey 231.347.7767

Bob and Mary Keedy had a moment of genius when, in 1999, they hired artist Jesse Hickman to deploy his playful spirit full on and redesign Petoskey’s Roast and Toast cafe. Outside, Hickman trimmed the exterior of the entryway in an unforgettable array of colorful ceramic coffee mugs; inside he painted swaths of bright colors and installed unexpected materials, like corrugated sheet metal roofing as wall covering, to create an electrified, irreverent environment that still proves irresistible, and is a place where, as the cafe celebrates its 20th year, Petoskey community still happens in 3-D every day. The Keedys’ Roast and Toast also set the bar for all Northern cafes: don’t expect to succeed with predictable.

Roast and Toast still reigns as one of the North’s iconic gathering spots, so we asked general manager Ben Walker to usher us through the ebb and flow, who appears when, the open-to-close choreography of community at Roast and Toast.

“We open at 7 a.m., but the first regulars show up at 6:30, maybe 10 of them, and we serve them even though we’re technically closed. They sit, enjoy their coffee, read the paper. So that’s about an hour. Then the students and parents and teachers show up. That’s when there’s a big line, and it’s all grab and go stuff—coffee, pastries. Many people come in every single weekday to get their coffee. Then people start to come in for breakfast, and it stays busy all morning—a lot of business type meetings. Around 11 it slows a bit, and we see students from the college doing homework between classes.

“When lunch kicks in, that really has a lot to do with friends meeting friends. We have several groups of retirees who meet regularly each week for lunch. The lunch rush lasts till 2 or 3 o’clock, so a long lunch rush here. Then about 3, the high school kids come in. They hang out with their friends, have a cup of coffee, a soda, a little soup. They head home, and it evolves into dinner about 5:30. Not a huge dinner crowd. Then evening crowd—that’s pretty relaxed here, and we close at 8 in the winter.”

What’s next for Roast and Toast? Look for the cafe to get a liquor license to ramp up evening business.

Brew

108 E. Front Street, Traverse City 231.946.2739

From the day Brew opened on Traverse City’s Front Street, in October 2011, the venue seemed to become the town’s “other” office. Step inside Brew at 10 a.m. and see a long row of tables, a laptop or two on every one, heads bent to screens, earbuds pressed firmly in place. See groups of three or four talking policy, business, events, planning. Hear shards of conversation like, “that’s true, but it’s also not true.”

For owners Melissa and Sean Kickbush and Melissa’s brother Jason Romine, that buzzy, in-the-now vibe is a remarkable fulfillment of their vision. “The idea of Brew is driven by atmosphere,” Sean says. “We wanted a space that made people feel inspired and creative.” They achieve that sensibility with a dexterous blend of industrial chic (exposed utility chases above—flat black electrical, shiny alloy ductwork) and the worn comfort of recycled materials (barn wood walls, sanded original wood floors, exposed original brick, saggy couches and stuffed chairs beside used floor lamps). “We wanted it to be different, and we knew that space was the most achievable way to be different,” Sean says. Helping: They fell in love with a cafe in Chicago called Filter and asked the designer to submit a bid—he got the job.

Like many cafe owners, the Brew team set out to create a place they themselves would want to hang out. That idea propelled them past the traditional Starbuck’s formula of coffee drinks and pastries. They added a full bar (the name Brew a coy nod to both coffee and beer) and a more robust menu, so the place could transition into night. “We were into our 30s, so we were done with the bar scene, but still wanted to go out—not something loud, but not something dressy martini bar either, something comfortable and in-between,” Sean says.

After a remarkable first year, the Brew team enters year two intending to dial up the menu. “We weren’t trying to be a restaurant necessarily, so we were caught off guard a bit when the food became such a big seller,” Sean says. “We’ll be expanding the menu, doing some tinkering, some testing.”

Xylo

221 Garland Street, Traverse City 231.421.9200

The Boardman River borders it to the south. A bumpy alley borders it to the north. An empty former microbrewery shares the converted warehouse space. And Traverse City’s core business district is around the corner and over a bridge, a block and a half away. Xylo’s location might sound a smidge obscure, but that tucked-awayness, that secret-world quality, is one of the key ingredients that lures people here. That and rich speciality coffees, pastries from an in-house pastry chef, an eclectic world beat menu and the warm surprise of a smart, inspired space. Xylo’s vibe is ideal for, say, finishing up a report beyond reach of office hubbub, tête-à-têtes over coffee, or gathering with friends or colleagues to hatch the next big thing.

Xylo’s eclecticism is expressed not only on the menu. Art on the walls ranges from landscapes to abstracts to pop art, the most dramatic piece being a close-up of an eye that stretches about four feet horizontally and is positioned center stage at the couchy conversation area. A rich gunmetal gray floor, foam green walls, and warm track lighting can make you wonder if you’re in an artful restaurant or in an art gallery that serves food.

A varied clientele comes in search of different things, says manager Tom Grant. Mornings, college students nurse a latte while tapping into the free WiFi. At lunch, business people, seniors, post-playgroup moms and yet more students seek foods from around the planet—Eastern European, French, American, Asian. (The biggest seller is Thai noodles.) Dinner draws all demographics.

“We cook only food that we like to eat,” says Grant. “Big portions for a little bit of money—we’re in the Warehouse District, so you gotta do what you gotta do.” Look for Xylo to get a liquor license in coming months.

For Grant, Xylo is fundamentally about making people happy. “My favorite moments are when we put a smile on somebody’s face. It’s not that hard to do and it’s what keeps people coming back.”

Sugar Moon Cafe

245 S. Benzie Boulevard, Beulah 231.882.2005

If there’s one thing that Northern Michigan’s cafe-preneurs share it’s an understanding that they must be attuned to what their microcosm of a community wants in a gathering spot. That idea is what compelled the owners of Beulah’s Phoenix Cafe to tweak their concept and change the name to Sugar Moon Cafe in 2012.

“We went from coffee shop appeal to more of a diner appeal,” says Ron Harrison, who owns the shop with his wife. “Diner cafe, not coffee cafe,” he says. But the most important part remains. “People still come in here and hang out; they love the friendly atmosphere.”

Sugar Moon is the name Native Americans gave to the full moon under which they tapped maple sap, Harrison explains, and customers will find hints of maple on the menu, especially in desserts. Customers will also still find a great cup of coffee—a Sugar Moon custom blend roasted by Great Northern Coffee. On the menu, the focus is on inventive diner food. Harrison especially likes the Sugar Moon Egg Pie—a protein-rich grab-and-go item you can easily eat in the car.

Decor-wise, the addition of counter seating is the change that most clearly telegraphs the transition to diner cafe, a back-to-the-future move that reminds us that whether you spell it café or cafe, it feels good to gather in a favorite small town spot, with your hands cradling a strong cup of coffee.

Moka

102 N. Bridge Street, Bellaire 231.533.6262

So the original Moka vision happened like this. Bill Peterson had always wanted to open a wine shop. And his wife, Cathy, had been making wedding cakes out of her house. And another investor thought it would be cool to open a really nice coffee shop. And so they thought Moka could be a kind of trifecta: nice coffee shop with outstanding pastries and wine shop in downtown Bellaire. “I would do beautiful little tarts,” Cathy reminisces. “Little bite-sized tarts. And keep it simple. Open early, close early.” And cozy. A fireplace, chocolate brown walls. After they opened in January 2008, it all pretty much worked, except for those perfect, colorful, lovely, delectable little tarts. “We could not sell a tart for the life of us,” Cathy says wistfully, thinking of how prim and pretty they were in the case. People wanted brownies. Lemon bars. Cathy, pastry chef that she is, thought, “How boring.”

But she knew enough to listen to her community. With some experimentation, she worked up a brownie she could be proud of. Now, five years and 47,000 brownies later, she says, “You just can’t beat a good brownie.” And apparently the community agrees.

Community, not just listening to community, but being immersed in it and letting it be expressed in a café, is what Moka is about for the owners. Take for example, that first year they were open. By summer, locals were already used to settling in Moka, popping the laptop, sipping the cappuccino, occupying tables for long periods. With the arrival of summer crowds, and a make-hay-while-the-sun-shines urge taking hold, Moka owners felt conflicted. Should Moka politely ask year-rounders to move along a little sooner—you know, geeze, one guy hunkered in at a four-top on a July Saturday morning while a line gathers? “That was a real discussion,” Cathy recalls. “But no, we decided we couldn’t. These people support us all year long, we aren’t going to ask them to leave because summer people are here.”

Even more important, community comes back Moka’s way too. “I’ve had a lot of health problems since we opened,” Cathy says. “Some days, my husband comes home and says,‘if I had a nickel for every person who asked about you today, we’d be rich.’”

Find this article and additional photographs in the January issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe today!

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