It’s 12:35 PM on a Friday, and Twenty Below coffee shop is bustling with activity and conversation. A couple wanders in looking for a brew.
“We’re actually closed right now,” says co-owner Mike Moran. “This is the community lunch hour. But you’re welcome to stay!”
“We’ll stay,” the couple says.
Moran offers the pay-what-you-can drip coffee and gestures to the table of potluck food. Today the theme is ‘cheese’, with homemade macaroni, salad with feta, and grilled cheese as just a few of the options.
The lunch hour is just one way Twenty Below seeks to make community the center of their business. Each employee brings in a dish to share, and anyone is welcome to join the meal.
“It’s about having intentionality with mealtimes,” Moran said. “Because everyone eating together is better than one person shoveling food down in the corner.”
The community focus makes sense considering the coffee shop, which is celebrating its one year birthday on April 1, was created out of a love for Fargo-Moorhead.
Coffee & dreams
The idea to start a coffee shop was a long-time dream of Ty Ford and his wife Elisha. The couple moved to Fargo from southern Wisconsin in 2013 and fell in love with the city. Story goes that Ty was so eager to get started in building a shop, that just a few hours after his daughter Lucy was born in 2014 he said, “Ok, can we do it now?”
He shared this dream with Mike Moran, an experienced barista and fellow coffee enthusiast. Moran grew up watching the show CHEERS, and had always wanted to recreate the place “where everybody knows your name, and everyone’s glad you came.”
“It’s about treating people like people, not drink orders,” he said.
Turning that dream into a tangible brick and mortar shop took a lot of blood, sweat and, well, coffee. The few months before their opening day on April 1, 2015, were among the craziest of all, according to Moran’s wife, Danae.
“Everything we could do ourselves, we did do ourselves,” she said.
They built the bar stools and the tables, they stained the wood. They peeled slabs of wood from an old barn to decorate the walls. They constructed the shelves, and carted equipment from Minneapolis to Fargo. Slowly, the small shop on the corner of Roberts Street North began to take shape.
One year later…
Today, the shop is filled with light and people. Paper cranes in varied colors hang in the windows, and local art adorns the walls – including a stained map of Middle Earth by their in-house baker (and the mastermind behind their white-chocolate scone), Ali Burke. It’s odd to think that none of this existed a year ago.
“It feels like it’s been three years, it feels like it’s been five months,” Moran says, looking around at the shop. “I’ve learned so much about myself and my limits.”
“It takes so much courage starting a small business, especially a brick and mortar,” Danae says, rocking their 3-month-old Audrey Jane. “You have to combat fear a lot to decide to keep moving forward.”
Their shared friendship and faith values with the Fords has been crucial to their success, she added, especially as the two raise their young daughters together.
From a financial perspective, Moran said they’ve had a positive year as well. They now have nine employees, they’ve paid all their bills, and he and Ty were even able to write themselves a small paycheck – something that they were not expecting this year.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re making a large paycheck yet by any means,” he said. “But I’ve profited by making a lot of friends, and being involved in this community.”
Twenty Below has seen other accomplishments this year as well, including a partnership with North Dakota State University to supply their coffee shops, dining center, and catering. The deal came about after interim business dean Jane Schuh got hooked on their coffee at 1 Million Cups Fargo.
Twenty Below’s wholesale coffee beans can also be found on the shelves at Natural Grocer’s, and are being used at various local restaurants. Drekker Brewing Company, around the corner from the shop, uses it in one of their most popular beers.
‘Coffee is a catalyst’
They also hope to develop closer relationships with their coffee farmers. All their coffee is fair trade, meaning the coffee farmers are ensured a sustainable wage for their family. Someday they hope to travel to the coffee farms, in places like Southeast Asia, East Africa, Indonesia, and meet the farmers face to face.
“We want to get to know them, and know their names,” Moran said.
Knowing names is a huge emphasis for Moran, and one he instills in the culture at Twenty Below. Like the community lunch hour, it’s an intentional way to deepen relationships in the community, he said.
And the customers notice. When Fargo native Kalae Loudenslager walked in to Twenty Below for the first time, the barista said, “You’re new, what’s your name?”
“They recognized right away that I was a new person,” she said. “They really know their clientele.”
The community focus doesn’t come without a cost. Even as the Morans share their story, a customer walks in and sees the shop is closed for lunch hour. He promptly walks out.
But it all depends on how you measure success, Moran said. As he looks back on a year of business with Twenty Below, he sees it as one rich with relationships. This Friday, April 1, they’re inviting the community to celebrate their first birthday with a grill out in their back alley. Already over 300 people are slotted to show up.
It comes back to the heart of Twenty Below, and the values of the people who started it one year ago. Moran said it best, as he finished up his meal, surrounded by customers, his employees, his family.
“Coffee is the catalyst for relationship,” he said. “Not an end in itself.”
Twenty Below will be a featured speaker at 1 Million Cups this week, as part of “Coffee Day.” Join us on Wednesday, March 30 at 9:15 AM, at the Stage at Island Park.
Photos courtesy of Twenty Below.