Back in the early ’90s, when Guy Darienzo and Stephen Keye were still a couple, they fell in love with Saugatuck, Michigan, and decided to relocate from Chicago to open a bed-and-breakfast. It was a big leap for Darienzo, an engineer, and Keye, who worked in a fashion boutique. But their dreams were dashed when the woman running a workshop on innkeeping advised them to reconsider. As Darienzo recalls, she suggested that as two gay men they might have trouble attracting enough clients to sustain a business — even in famously LGBTQ-friendly Saugatuck.
Not only that, Keye said his enthusiasm about the venture diminished.
“My romantic notion of making homemade pancakes and having everyone love them just kind of went away after the class,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, OK, you don’t get away from it!’”
Plan B: A coffee shop. Thus, Uncommon Grounds was born.
Uncommon Grounds — later renamed Uncommon Coffee Roasters for trademark reasons — opened in 1994, and this year will celebrate a quarter of a century in business. However, its success was not ensured without a great deal of research and planning. A trip to Italy to learn from the best, with regard to espresso machines, European coffee culture and more, represented the underpinnings of what UCR was to become.
“I wanted that impression on the café, rather than the sort of McDonaldization of it,” said Keye, in reference to what was the trend in Seattle at the time.
An Uncommon Space
Pieced together to create a sort of cozy labyrinth, the building itself has a story to tell, too.
The front was once a dental office, but that’s hardly the interesting part. Following a fire that devasted the lumbering town of Singapore in the 1870’s, the back portion is part of one of the houses brought down the frozen Kalamazoo River on wooden logs to save them from being buried under the shifting sand dunes.
At one point, the building became apartments, “So we’ve had customers over the years walk into the coffee shop and say, ‘This was our living room.’ It has a lot of history,” said Darienzo.
Behind the building is a garden patio that one might call coffee paradise: more seating, greenery including an herb garden, plus a water fountain that played a subtle accompaniment to this interview. The space is also utilized for community events, such as the meet and greet with state Senate candidate Garnet Lewis and State Rep. Jon Hoadley the evening before we spoke.
How They’ve Grown
From coffee drinks like their popular iced coffee mocktails to freshly-baked treats, as well as numerous varieties of bagged coffee and “Roasted With Pride” T-shirts that feature rainbow coffee beans, Uncommon Coffee Roasters as a brick-and-mortar coffee shop is just part of Darienzo and Keye’s business enterprise.
A small-batch specialty coffee roaster, UCR began roasting its own beans in 2000. The demand was so great that in 2010 they opened a wholesale business in neighboring Douglas.
“People would come in, and they’d see me standing there roasting,” Keye said. “And they’d say, ‘Oh my God, you roast your coffee. I have a bed-and-breakfast in Mount Pleasant, can we buy some coffee from you?’ Yes, yes! So, brick by brick, we built the wholesale that way.”
After that, a roaster in Chicago who was closing her business pitched her clients to Darienzo and Keye, as she didn’t want them to disperse to some of the bigger names in the industry. Eventually, the number of companies they roasted for quadrupled and it was time to hire a team of salespeople to make cold calls and pound the pavement.
Since then, it’s been “a natural evolution,” said Keye. UCR now provides services to more than 200 small businesses and large corporations throughout the Midwest, including Michigan giants Whirlpool and Herman Miller, and they have a thriving online operation as well.
Lately, UCR is focused on wider distribution of their immensely popular cold brew coffee, which they’ve been producing for 10 years — by popular demand, it’s available by the keg. Made with organic ingredients including grass-fed dairy, buyers will find the ready-to-drink products under the Cultivo label in stores throughout Michigan, the east coast and Florida, sold in earth-friendly, dairy-style containers.
Environmental sustainability doesn’t stop with cardboard coffee cartons, though. At UCR, the cups, sleeves and even the single-serve, K-cups for sale are compostable, which means they won’t end up in a landfill. Not only that, instead of discarding tons of coffee grounds as a by-product from the cold brew process, they’re donated and repurposed into a chemical-free growing medium at a worm farm in Sturgis through their Grounds to Grounds Initiative.
Farm to Cup
From the beginning, working closely with the coffee producers has been part and parcel of Darienzo and Keye’s philosophy and business ethic. UCR sources green coffee globally and its owners travel to the origin whenever possible.
“That whole concept, from the garden or the farm to the table is an old American tradition that has come back,” Keye said. “And that is part of our mission, from the farm to the cup. And through that, we’re able to give back.”
As an example, Darienzo described how they support a day care in Costa Rica for the children of the farmers’ coffee pickers. When made aware of the need, not only did they begin donating a portion of the proceeds from bags of coffee sold in the shop, they went a step further and funded the bilingual private school education of one of the coffee farmer’s daughters.
Just as they build relationships with the farmers, Darienzo and Keye give back locally, too. A dollar from sales of their Pride Blend (“Earthy, Fruity, Chocolate”) is donated to area LGBTQ centers in Holland and Benton Harbor, but that’s just the beginning.
UCR has a project in the works that would benefit the Ruth Ellis Center, which serves the needs of homeless and at-risk LGBTQ youth in Southeast Michigan. That concept is based on one that’s about to launch in New York.
After helping a friend of Bea Arthur open a Golden Girls-themed café in Manhattan which sells UCR’s products, they put their heads together and decided to donate to the Ali Forney Center from sales of their coffee sold at several retailers in New York City.
“When Bea Arthur died she put aside money for LGBT youths, homeless youths,” said Darienzo. “So for every skid that we send to the Fairway Market, $100 gets to be earmarked to feeding [them]. So I want to do the same thing with the Ruth Ellis Center.” That project, still in the planning stages, would be based on sales of the cold brew coffee line that Kroger has agreed to pick up in 75 locations in Michigan.
Whether it’s connecting with farmers, serving the community, providing top-notch products to their business clients or offering a welcoming space in their coffee shop, everything about Darienzo and Keye’s business is focused on maintaining sustainable relationships.
Turning Rain Into Rainbows
One might think being known as “the gay coffee shop” in an LGBTQ mecca like Saugatuck would be a pretty coveted position, but promoting an out-and-proud business has not necessarily endeared the owners to everyone in the community. For example, soon after they opened, a coffee shop in Douglas came to be known as “the family coffee shop,” according to Keye. “It was their little [code] word.”
Not only that, although they own the building, the owner of a restaurant who shared the entrance in the early days asked Darienzo and Keye to fly the rainbow flag on the café side of the building because he claimed it was hurting his business.
It wasn’t even until 2007 that Saugatuck adopted a nondiscrimination ordinance. With so many LGBTQ-owned businesses, some residents assumed it wasn’t necessary. But discrimination occurs everywhere, even in Saugatuck, as Keye learned when a gay couple told their story of being denied accommodations after they had pre-booked a room.
“You could kind of tell that they were friends of Dorothy,” Keye said. “And so the heterosexual people who owned the hotel, they started fumbling through papers, and, ‘Oh, you know we don’t have a reservation for you, are you sure you made a reservation?’” It was time to take a stand, and ultimately the Saugatuck Township Board of Commissioners adopted the ordinance by a unanimous vote.
Remarkably, Keye and Darienzo even found an opportunity to achieve a greater good in direct response to homophobia.
“We became LGBT-certified about 10 years ago when a customer didn’t want to use us because we were gay,” Darienzo said.
The shop earned that designation in 2012 as a National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce Certified LGBT Business Enterprise.
“We became certified, we thought, to use it to our advantage,” he said.
That ability to turn ugliness on its head was especially meaningful for Keye, who said, “Being African-American I had never had anything where I could do any of that.”
As the corporate landscape becomes more inclusive, being LGBT-certified, or majority-owned by LGBT individuals — among other criteria — is a way to stand out from competitors. Further, Fortune 500 companies who do business with LGBT-certified companies can enhance their Equality Index Score from the Human Rights Campaign. And that is a significant reason for UCR’s close ties with two Michigan companies.
“Because [for] companies like Whirlpool and Herman Miller, it’s important for them to have a diverse workforce,” said Darienzo, “but also, it’s hard for them to attract talent to a small rural area, and it’s easier if they’re known as an LGBT forward-thinking company.”
Although Keye and Darienzo haven’t been a couple for 10 years, they remain a powerful force as partners in business. What each of them loves about the work reflects their personalities and where they’ve found a particular niche in a business with so many moving parts.
“For me, first of all, I like meeting people and talking with people and having fun,” said Keye, who also mentioned baking and roasting, too, though he developed an allergy to the burlap bags and had to give that up. “Those were the things that I really clicked with and found happiness doing.”
Darienzo, on the other hand, finds his greatest happiness connecting with the farmers and finding ways to give back.
“In the last couple years, I’ve been to Ethiopia, Kenya and Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Guatemala,” he said. “I love the travel to meet the farmers. We all learn from each other.”
But if you ask the two of them why their little shop in downtown Saugatuck has so many fans, the answer is unanimous: the coffee.
“We try not to have it personality-driven,” Keye said. “And I’ll say that to customers who say, ‘Stephen, you know if you weren’t here, it would be different,’ and I say, ‘No, we’re very, very product-driven. I don’t need to be here.’”
“Our whole focus is the coffee,” he said, adding that people appreciate their dedication to farmers.
“That, and people just like the ambiance,” Keye said. “People who are into the metaphysical world say that this is like a portal. That people are drawn here.”
Product, people, ethics or atmosphere? In the end, the appeal of Uncommon Coffee Roasters — what has earned Darienzo and Keye rave reviews and loyal customers for 25 years — doesn’t come from a single origin: It’s a special blend.
For more information about the coffee shop and its owners, visit uncommoncoffeeroasters.com.