Article and photos by Jeremy Benson

In the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 8, at the corner of Michigan and Court in Old Town Saginaw, Sylvia Hendricks shelved the inaugural delivery of Mountain Dew and bottled water into a refrigerated display case, while in the kitchen, Eric Phillips prepared to greet the health inspector, giving the tiled floor a once-, then twice-, over with a broom. Outside, a 360 Main Street photographer snapped a shot of the refurbished Mooney’s Ice Cream sign, and a man, stopped at a red light, called out from his car, "Hey, do you know when this place will open?"

The recent bustle of activity at the location—which has seen little action beyond launch failures and speculation after the building's completion in 2008—has neighbors and patrons of Old City Saginaw eager, curious and hopeful. Also hopeful are Court Street Cafe owners Hendricks and Phillips: pending the results of the health department’s final inspections, the business partners hope the new restaurant will open for all-day breakfasts, soup-and-salad lunches, and Mexican dinners within the next two weeks. The restaurant will serve a variety of pastries and java-to-go for hurried businesspeople, and free WIFI for customers avoiding the office. For everyone in between, Mooney's Ice Cream will always be on tap.

The establishment is the first collaboration between Phillips and Hendricks, who met and made plans while both worked at Tony's in Shields. "We said that if the opportunity arises, then we'd like to become partners and own something together," says Hendricks, a former bridge construction worker. Phillips, who has owned Eric's Place and Giant Public Market in Saginaw, heard the Court Street space was available and called Hendricks. "We thought, let's go for it!" she recalls.

A neighborhood friendship has also developed since Hendricks and Phillips started sprucing up the space: the Court Street Gallery, located down the block, volunteered to supply the cafe's décor. "They called right up," says Phillips, who likes the atmosphere the pieces of art provide.

One of five suites, the cafe is housed in what has been nicknamed the New Ippel Building, which adopts its name and neon signage from the three-story landmark that stood at the location until fire destroyed it in early 2002. The new structure was built using the Insulex Paneling System, an energy efficient, pre-fab panel construction designed by Thomas Township architect David F. Oeming. The panels allowed the building to go up within a matter of days, even after a series of planning and development setbacks kept the land vacant for years. The building is dedicated to Dennis A. Kostrzewa, an early believer in the site's potential who died in 2005 before his vision came to fruition.

Although the daily specials sign has yet to be hung, and decisions about closing times and menu color are still being mulled over, the Court Street Cafe already feels warm and welcoming; the perfect place to retreat to in the January freeze—even if you're there for the ice cream.

© Jeremy Benson, 2010