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The ins and outs of some of your favorite local coffee shops

By Cyote Williams

Americans adore their coffee. Special blends, lattes, cappuccinos, espressos, you name it. And don’t forget the plenty of hearty, no frills, “Just give me a cup of coffee,” drinkers. They buy a can of Folgers at the store, brew it at home and avoid the hub-bub of cafes and coffee stores in totality.
Coffee isn’t often mentioned when it comes to being one of life’s great connectors. From the college student who just downed his eighth cup during a 24-hour study binge, to the construction worker warming his hands and belly before a day of labor or the aspiring writer sitting in the corner of your local coffee shop drafting the next bestseller, they are all connected by their preferred cup of caffeine.
Excellent coffee-drinking destinations are scattered across the metro. After visiting several coffee shops to see how they make their coffee, what type of food they serve, how they decide to style their respective shops, and why they’re important in their communities, a recap of a few seems appropriate.
To get the scoop on what the coffee scene is like in Des Moines, one must get perspectives from a wide range of shops. Coffee Cats at 312 Fifth St., West Des Moines, is unique because cats can be adopted from there. The family- and veteran-owned La Barista Coffee at 1963 Grand Ave., West Des Moines, was the first of its kind in the city that was equipped with a drive-thru. St. Kilda Cafe & Bakery’s downtown location at 300 S.W. Fifth St., Des Moines, focuses more on their food options. The Slow Down Coffee Co. in the Highland Park area (3613 Sixth Ave., Des Moines) is relatively new and promotes an atmosphere where customers go to “slow down” and enjoy conversation inside. Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure has been in business for more than 30 years in the same spot at 2723 Ingersoll Ave., Des Moines.
While they don’t represent every coffee shop or cafe in the metro, they vary from new to old, from roasting in and out of house, in how they source their food options and the ambience they strive to set. These stores provide ample insight into what goes into a successful, tasty and welcoming coffee experience.
So, what makes these places great? Is it coffee? The atmosphere? The food? Being a valuable “third place?” Combining these elements into one business is a challenge, which they all seem to welcome.

The star of any coffee shop is, of course, the coffee. Iowa isn’t exactly prime real estate for growing coffee beans, so where do the shops get their beans from, and how are they roasted?
Mary Jankowski from Coffee Cats in West Des Moines buys her coffee beans from Grounds for Celebration.
“They roast their own coffee beans, so I get my drip coffee and my espresso from them. I wanted to do as much locally as I could. They helped train me when I first opened the business, so I just ordered from them on a weekly basis, and I go pick it up, so I know it’s fresh. They roast once a week,” said Jankowski.
La Barista Coffee, also located in West Des Moines, has been in business for 29 years. Adrian Barrantes says they buy their coffee from a couple different roasters.
“I’ve got a guy just south of Minneapolis and another one in St. Louis where I source my coffees from. They’re roasted and packaged for me, and I throw them on the shelves,” said Barrantes.
Drew Kelso from the Slow Down Coffee Co. in Highland Park buys his coffee beans roasted by Windmill Coffee Roasters, located just north in Ames.
Over on Ingersoll Avenue at Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure, Julie McGuire says they roast their coffee beans in house.
“I have half a dozen different contacts that are engaged in the activity of actually importing and then brokering coffee, and the coffee comes from all around the world,” said McGuire.
When it comes to St. Kilda Cafe & Bakery, Whitney Hall has remained with the same provider for many years.
“Prior to moving to Des Moines, we have used Counter Culture Coffee. We have had a long-standing relationship with them for well over 15 years now, so it’s in our best interest to continue to support them,” said Hall.

While coffee is the star, pastries, baked goods and other quick breakfast items are important co-stars. Items that are grab-and-go accessible and help start your day on a tasty note are an important element at each of these shops.
Several of the shops get their goodies from home bakers and local bakeries.
“I bring in pastries. I have a couple of different home bakers that make cookies or pastries, and then I also work with New World Kitchen run by Madeline Krantz,” said Jankowski.
At La Barista Coffee, Barrantes makes their breakfast burritos and cinnamon rolls from scratch.
“I wouldn’t say what I have is a large menu. But what I do have I want to make sure I’m doing it right and doing it good. Other baking, my daughters will take care of,” said Barrantes.
Their cinnamon rolls follow an old family recipe that came from Barrantes’ grandfather, who was a baker in Costa Rica. Unfortunately, they often are sold out after the morning rush, a normal occurrence according to Barrantes.
Three home bakers, LeeTy Delights, Oh High Cookies and Scenic Route Bakery, all have their treats sold at Slow Down Coffee Co. — everything from vegan and gluten-free options to oatmeal creme pies, cinnamon rolls, deluxe stuffed cookies and more. The LeeTy Delights cinnamon rolls are only featured on Sundays, which Kelso has turned into a weekly tradition.
“I wanted to create this kind of standing day tradition people can lean into if they want. From being in this neighborhood, it feels like everybody has some sort of tie to the neighborhood. Everybody seems to have a memory of the area, like a special event that they would commonly do. Since we were caught up with being a new face, I wanted to provide something similar,” said Kelso, who lives in the same neighborhood as his coffee shop.
For McGuire, her intention from the very beginning at Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure was to source their baked goods locally. Being open for three decades, they’ve had to make changes over the years.
“Over those 30 years, we have had to change our vendors periodically depending on who’s in business and who’s not in business. And, fortunately, we’ve always been able to find somebody to fill the bill. It keeps things a little interesting. It’s been a really nice opportunity for us to feature and highlight other businesses in the community and give them another space to showcase their products,” said McGuire.
“St. Kilda has always been food-focused with an added coffee element, so food is definitely necessary as we’re a daytime cafe open seven days a week,” said Hall.
Their all-day breakfast menu is extensive. Customers can find a Big Aussie Breakfast, breakfast tacos, or pastries that are easy to grab and go.

Coffee drinkers would be hard pressed to find a more unique atmosphere than that of Coffee Cats. If you guessed cats as the reason, it’s probably your morning java keeping you so sharp. You don’t have to enter the cat lounge if that’s not your thing, but scheduling time to do so takes you into kitty heaven.
“They’re all from our local Animal Rescue League, so they’re all available for adoption. We’ve done 1,323 adoptions in three and a half years just from here,” said Jankowski.
Seeing how the cats behave with customers and around others inside the lounge offers a chance to get to know their personalities before adoption.
The aesthetic of La Barista Coffee reflects Barrantes’ vision to make sure people feel at home.
“I want people to feel welcome in here. I don’t like a lot of the new style or fashion. To me it seems a little sterile. I want warm, inviting colors. And I’d like to think that’s what I have here. I get a lot of people saying you feel like you’re walking into somebody’s living room, and I think that’s important,” said Barrantes.
The store was previously a pharmacy. After a few years of the fluorescent overhead lights, Barrantes made the change to what you see now.
Kelso met his wife, Kara, while they worked at Barnes and Noble, and that’s reflected by what is seen inside the doors of their coffee shop.
“Having a little micro version of that which isn’t filled with corporate red tape is fun to kind of play with and is part of my wife and I’s story,” said Kelso.
The influence from the bookstore is apparent, with bookshelves located throughout the store and plenty of reading material to enjoy.
After carefully working with architects, McGuire was able to put together a vision for her store.
“There were a couple of really critical pieces that were important for me in terms of what I was trying to create, and one of them was welcoming, warm and being somewhat timeless. It’s not really a mimicry or copy of anything I had experienced. It was just more about what are the right choices to help create the environment that I’m looking to create,” said McGuire.
Plants galore, massive bags of coffee beans and an environment that accurately reflects a “coffee adventure” are present at the Ingersoll Avenue stalwart Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure.
For St. Kilda, the aim was to create a modern and unique aesthetic.
“It also has a sense of history and character with keeping original beams, brick and many interior elements that create warmth within the space,” said Hall.

A “third place” is somewhere that isn’t a workplace or home. This could be a bar, library, museum, barbershop or, you guessed right again, a coffee shop. Third places are ideal for building community — somewhere to go and meet new people and create connections.
When asked, the owners of each of these locations stressed how much they enjoy being a hub for their communities.
“I think anytime a coffee shop can offer that for somebody (a third place), is great. We’ve hosted birthday parties here. We’ve had an engagement happen here. We had a couple that came in, on their wedding day prior to their wedding, just to come in and relax,” said Jankowski.
“It’s huge for me,” said Barrantes on being a dedicated part of a community. “I’ve got a group of townhomes just right up the street here. They (the residents) tell me all the time how appreciative they are to have me right here, and it’s a nice feeling. I love being part of their daily routine.”
Kelso spoke passionately about the improvements that are being made in the Highland Park area.
“I’m really into this concept of placemaking. It’s all about bringing in spaces that people can relate to and gather in, kind of under this philosophy of the third space,” said Kelso.
Kelso, who is also the president of his neighborhood association, mentioned he hopes to keep attracting businesses that share that same mindset.
“That way, we can restore all this beautiful infrastructure that is already here in this historic neighborhood district,” said Kelso.
“It was certainly one of the No. 1 reasons that I wanted to open, to create a space for community,” said Mcguire on Zanzibar’s role as a third place. “Not just for the Ingersoll neighborhood. But when there were fewer and fewer of these (coffee shops), we would really draw from an audience much beyond our neighborhood. As other neighborhoods have developed their own spaces, it’s less necessary for folks to travel across town for it.”
“I’ve heard from customers that they had their first date at St. Kilda,” said Hall. “They were proposed to after eating brunch, they had a memorable interview, some have even gotten married within our space — creating good memories for people is what it’s all about.”
Whether it be any of these coffee shops — or another you prefer to frequent — each is unique to itself and its neighborhood and owners. A step inside could introduce you to a decades-old cinnamon roll recipe, a new furry addition to your family, beautiful latte art that forces you to snap a picture before you sip, a full breakfast, or a unique specialty drink that’ll bring you back the next day.

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