The worn wooden floorboards creak at The Sparrows Coffee Tea and Newsstand, and the back wall is five different shades of paint. "It's gritty, but warm and welcoming," said Lori Slager Wenzel, owner and founder.
Believing that coffee is an experience best shared with friends in a comfortable environment, Lori and two business partners opened The Sparrows in 2007, with the dream of creating a community space that was inclusive, community-focused and welcoming.
"We knew people were doing cool things in Grand Rapids, and there weren't a lot of places to meet at the time."
There also weren't a lot of jobs. Lori had graduated from Calvin College in the midst of the economic recession, with a degree in art education. After spending a few years working in retail and teaching art and creative writing in afterschool programs, she used her artistic mind and created her own career.
"Business requires a creative mind."
Lori and her business partners wanted something to set The Sparrows apart from other stores, so they built shelves on the sidewall for a newsstand. "Originally, we had the typical grocery store magazines like Oprah and Time, but nobody ever bought those. They liked the artsy ones."
Within two years, Lori became the sole owner and operator of The Sparrows. Her artistic nature inspired the café's cozy aesthetic—the velvet lounge chairs by the front window, the potted green plants climbing a ladder, the mural by local contemporary artist Jeff Kraus hanging on the red siding outside.
Her creative mind extends far beyond the visual, however. It's evident in her daily problem solving. A business owner, wife and mother of three young children, Lori is constantly on the move. She researches and reads to expand her knowledge, is an active member of the Wealthy Street Business Alliance, and hasn't left the afterschool world completely behind, either: She co-founded the Creative Youth Center in 2011.
"I'm not really good at sitting still," Lori said. "I'd rather have that than be bored. With this, something is always changing."
This year, in particular.
In commemoration of The Sparrows' 10-year legacy in Grand Rapids' Eastown, Lori is opening a second location at 442 Bridge St. on the West Side—with the shop's first coffee roasting facility, which will supply both locations and wholesalers distributing within the community.
Julia Lancer, general manager and director of coffee, will oversee The Sparrows' new roasting program. Julia joined the team in 2016 after moving to Grand Rapids from northern California, where she gained 15 years of experience in the coffee industry's top roasters.
Lori notes the new Westside location is the perfect companion to the store in Eastown.
"When we opened here, we discovered the neighborhood was vibrant and welcoming. That was the surprise—getting to know our neighbors," Lori said. "The West Side gives us the same opportunity. We're a neighborhood coffee shop."
With 10 years in the books and, as Lori notes, "a lot of life left," Lori and her team are excited to focus on being a business with a lot of kindness, respect and integrity—a business that's good for Grand Rapids.
"We don't want to change the world with coffee. We just want to give people what they like."
Written by Cassie Westrate, staff writer for West Michigan Woman.
Pictured above: Lori stands in front of Jeff Kraus' Mural at The Sparrows Coffee Tea & Newstand on Wealthy Street.