Photos by J.J. Shaver
Article by Kelsey Ronan

If you're craving a good shot of espresso but can't quite budget that holiday in Rome you were hoping for, or looking for a meeting place with Flint's artists and activists, The Good Beans Café in Flint's Carriage Town offers just that.

With a well-established career in hospitality, Ken Van Wagoner decided to use his skills to make a positive impact in a city struggling to resurrect itself after the devastation of lost industry and dismal public perception. The café opened its doors in March 2000. "I started the café mainly because I wanted to present an upscale café in this area," Van Wagoner said. "At the time, cafes in Flint were passé. I wanted to create a beverage house offering authentic European espresso with a comfortable atmosphere allowing for studying, meeting, relaxation—all kinds of events centered around good conversation and good coffee."

The building, at 328 N. Grand Traverse, used to be Failer's Grocery Store and then had a series of strange, brief, lives, including a turn in the 1980s as Mr. Wizard's Motorcycle Repair. At the time Van Wagoner purchased the property, it had been vacant 17 years and needed three years worth of restoration.

The café Van Wagoner created is a beautiful place with nods to 1920s Art Deco. The bar is thought to be the original bar of the Capitol Theater's basement gentlemen's club. Shortly after Good Beans opened, an elderly gentlemen and former Capitol bartender stopped in and identified the bar. "I know this is the bar," he told Van Wagoner, "because that's my old spot right there." The legend remains unconfirmed, but Van Wagoner said he likes to think Flint's "developing fathers"—C.S. Mott, Billy Durant and Dallas Dort, whose legacy is known at the historic carriage factory just around the corner—drank at the bar.

The motto of the Good Beans Café is "constantly supporting community, culture and the arts." It's a motto the establishment lives up to; the café is a frequent spot for CD release parties, book signings, community meetings, class meetings, and a distribution spot for locally based magazines and community newsletters. Good Beans serves as the flagship store for Flint artist Patty Warner's Styx Designs (a line of greeting cards and bookmarks) and a retail place for local artists and musicians looking to sell their creations. Through the ongoing art program, artists are allowed to hang their work on the café walls for two months. "I get fresh walls every two months; they get a place to sell their work," Van Wagoner said. "Here’s an easel for you to pint on; a stage if you're an actor. This building is ready to accept so many different art forms that need a place to live, and we're well known as a place for the arts."

Flint's Creative Alliance meets at Good Beans every third Wednesday for "collaboration night": an open mic event open to writers, musicians and performers of all kinds. Each September, the café puts on an annual all-day music event, Goodstock.

Good Beans is also the home of Flint City Theatre, a theatre group begun by Dan Gerics after he was inspired by a Shakespeare production in a tiny New York City coffee shop. The group is in its eighth season and has been recognized for its ingenious mix of established masterpieces and edgy guerilla theater.

Van Wagoner says the Good Beans menu is essentially the same as it was in 2000: Lavazza espresso from Italy, Fair Trade coffee from Higher Grounds, Yogi teas, Ghiradelli chocolate and cinnamon rolls from Downtown Flint's Rolls R' Ready. The café has recently begun to feature vegan cookies from Swartz Creek's Switch Bakeries, Light of Day Tea organics from Traverse City and Direct Trade coffee from Bay City.

Good Beans' most popular drink is the old flannel shirt: a white chocolate caramel mocha (Van Wagoner says he suspects the drink is as popular for its name as its contents).

The invisible award hanging above the espresso machine, Van Wagoner says, is the café’s success against the odds and the connections that have formed where others anticipated failure. "People tell me I'm crazy, and I must have been, but look at now. We've been cited as a model business when people say it can't be done in Flint."

After ten years of pouring lattes and cappuccinos, the Flint Van Wagoner sees now has come a long way. The Good Beans crowd ten years ago consisted mostly of weekday professionals, but today, he says, the customer base is expanding and reflecting Flint's growing student population. The downtown renaissance and the recent openings of new restaurants like 501 Grill and Blackstone's has increased awareness of Flint's offerings. "Flint had a tough perception problem for a long time," he said.

Van Wagoner credits his loyal base of regulars—the "diehards," he says affectionately—with the success of the café. He says he often hears references to Cheers, and he takes great pride in being a place where the baristas know your name, your usual, and are ready to happily pick your brain about politics, Flint's expanding bike trail system, or the book you've carried in with you.

To ensure Flint's renaissance continues, Van Wagoner offers this advice: "Look at who you patronize. Vote with your dollar and look to the proprietor who puts his heart and soul into the project. If you enjoy a place, trade with it as often as you can. They rely on you."

© Kelsey Ronan, 2010