BY JIQUANDA JOHNSON
In nearly two decades, Ken VanWagoner has faced a number of struggles that could have forced him to close the doors at The Good Beans Cafe in Flint.
He remembers shooing away prostitutes, drug abusers and dealers from the doorstep of the coffee shop located just outside of downtown Flint – all of which drove customers away.
“Part of what I present here does not rely on a revenue stream,” VanWagoner said. “I don’t have to have a paycheck. What ends up making this work is that I don’t have a mortgage note. If I did, I would be out of business.”
VanWagoner has a long history in the hospitality industry. As he worked in various kitchens since college he always desired to open his own business. When his twin sister was in a fatal car accident, he came to Flint to care for his mother who was stricken with grief and through that tragedy he decided to set up a European-style coffee and beverage shop near downtown Flint.
“There were cafes throughout the U.S., but Flint was behind about 10 years,” VanWagoner said. “So, the whole idea was new for people around here, a place that only served coffee.”
Initially, he pursued loans to open The Good Beans Cafe but a number of rejections forced him to find other funding for the coffee shop located on 328 N. Grand Traverse in Flint’s Carriage Town community.
“I remember when I first opened. I wanted to borrow money to get the place going and all the places I asked for money said no,” VanWagoner said. “Every one of them said no.”
VanWagoner said he tried to obtain both conventional and unconventional loans to open Good Beans but the rejections may have saved his business.
“There’s no way I would have the business that would support a note. They all knew that but I didn’t. They were right,” he said. “I would have been out of business.”
In 2000, The Good Beans Cafe opened to the public. Shortly after opening the doors, VanWagoner struggled with ongoing crime issues that made some customers uneasy.
“I remember people coming and telling me if I could get rid of the drug dealers and prostitutes that I would have more business,” he said. “But I couldn’t. There was nothing that I could do to get rid of them so the loyalty of my customer base was contingent on their acceptance of that. There were people who were not coming down here…but I was okay with that.”
Now he says crime is down, the nation’s economy is coming back, but Flint businesses are struggling with the city’s water crisis and the negative stigma now associated with the water.
“This poor city was finally beginning to come back,” VanWagoner said. “We fought the perception problem for a long time. Now that crime got better, we started getting people to come to downtown Flint. There’s a loyal following that will always come. I’m talking about from the surrounding communities. Now we have to convince people that the water is safe.”
Be it crime, the city’s water crisis or the nation’s struggling economy, VanWagnoer said his business has managed to stay afloat because of his very modest lifestyle.
“I don’t own a fancy car. I don’t own a fancy house. I can afford to make it work,” VanWagoner said. “But I couldn’t ask anyone to live like I do.”
A statement that proved to be true when his partner, Michael, who helped him open The Good Beans Cafe left to pursue his desire to be an artist.
“He was always about 100 percent behind it,” VanWagoner said of his ex-partner. “These colors you see here are his colors. He picked them. He chose them. He totally was about certain aspects of this business that I never would have got, I never would have done, and to this day it still works here and that to me is part of what I loved about him and I still do.”
The couple agreed that Flint’s a “tough town” to live in.
“And when you’re a creative person, and he was very creative, still is, it clipped his wings and so he wanted to go and I wasn’t going to make him stay. That was nothing somebody should do to somebody else. So it was very hard, but I said if you have to go, you have to go. I would like to say that I couldn’t have done it without him and that was true,” VanWagoner said.
It was through that relationship and VanWagoner’s support of his nephew, a musician, that he learned to appreciate the arts – an appreciation that shows in the decor at the coffee shop where local artists are allowed to display and sell their works.
“I was always a numbers man. I never saw the benefit of the arts. I do now. I see how the two have to coexist,” he said. “What I created here was sort of the empty canvass for them to come and have it be whatever they wanted it to be. I didn’t censor it because I felt like that wasn’t my place either. And I allowed that creativity to express itself organically…and become whatever they wanted it to be.”
Artists host events monthly at the coffee shop, but giving local creatives a space to express themselves is only one reason VanWagoner has endured the struggles throughout the years.
“People say to me all the time, ‘You could have done away with Good Beans but you didn’t and we appreciate that.’ That’s the reason I’m staying. That’s the reason I’m continuing and that’s the reason I did continue.”