There has been some debate in Maplewood and South Orange lately over how many coffee shops a commercial center can sustain.
The answer may be: a lot.
But anecdotal evidence says that the health and sustainability of those shops is dependent on high quality goods and service, a welcoming environment and a strong catering component.
So, just why are coffee houses so essential to the economic health of our towns?
There answer there is: home-based businesses.
Maplewood Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rene Conlon says home-based ventures currently make up 40 to 50 percent of the Chamber’s members. In fact, the Chamber worked with Maplewood Township in 2015 to amend the home-based business ordinance to acknowledge how the category has shifted. (Home-based business are now allowed in more residential zones — with certain caveats. Read the new ordinance here.)
The explosion of home-based businesses in Maplewood and South Orange is reliant on several factors: the rise of the internet allowing professionals to work remotely, the towns’ many professional moms (and dads) who are trying to balance work and family, and — said Conlon and Maplewood Chamber Board Chair Rick Gilman — the economic downturn or 2008. Conlon and Gilman agree that corporate lay-offs forced many professionals to start their own businesses, with many beginning at home.
Oftentimes those home-based business owners need to get out of the house — for a change of scenery or to hold meetings. Over at the newly expanded Able Baker, owner Julie Pauly is seeing the phenomenon firsthand.
“We have many regulars who come in with their laptops at the ready,” said Pauly. She said that the Able Baker attracts writers, professors, contractors, realtors, doulas, yoga instructors, photographers, event planners, coaches “of all kinds,” arts organizations, charity organizations, various committee members and marketing and public relations professionals, among others.
“Many many, many folks have meetings here,” said Pauly. “Anyone who wants to meet a client at an easy-to-find neutral place. In the case of realtors especially, the spot they choose also reflects an image that appeals to their client. I’m always super flattered that people want to meet their clients at the bakery.”
Joe Ramaikas of Cedar Ridge Cafe & Bakery at the border of Maplewood and South Orange on Ridgewood Road agrees.
“We have a lot of freelancers or people who are their own bosses come in throughout the week. They’re usually working by themselves but there are a fair amount of them that do have meetings, etc.” said Ramaikas, who added, “We get a lot of people who tell us they need to not be in their houses any longer, almost as many as say they like the environment and prefer to work in our space from the get-go.”
Doesn’t it hurt business to have someone sitting at a table for hours typing away or hosting a meeting?
No, said Ramaikas: “We hope because they feel comfortable enough to spend time working, possibly only there long enough for a coffee and a bite, that they’d want to come back when they’re able to spend more time/money. We want to make them feel as welcome as anyone else. The other benefit is the networking they can do and how we can connect with them and them with other businesses. Knowing what one person does helps when we hear someone looking for that type of person for a project of their own. I can say that in many ways we’re an important part of their businesses as well.”
“Having people in the place brings an energy that attracts other customers, so I never discourage lingerers. We have free wifi and don’t limit how long people stay. If we get crowded, I’ll ask people working on laptops to share a table, or free up a chair by putting away their briefcase.” Paul noted that “business people who only spend $2 a day on coffee often wind up placing large orders for custom cookies as client gifts or breakfast platters for business events.”
“What I really love is when people actually connect while sharing their work space, and come back the next time to see a familiar face,” said Pauly. “That’s when it feels like we’re really part of the community.”
Ramaikas does admit that he was wary of the malingerers initially.
“Truthfully, this was the one reason I initially didn’t want to offer free wi-fi,” said Ramaikas, but he said his tune soon changed. “There are some that still don’t buy much regularly but will splurge every now and again. In the end, they’re all cogs in the machine that drive our very particular coffee shop/freelancer symbiotic culture.”
(It is interesting to note that the Able Baker’s expansion has not added significant table space; instead, the kitchen is greatly expanded to handle the demand for Pauly’s catering services. Cedar Ridge also has a healthy catering business — for instance, locals can enjoy their baked goods at the Maplewood Middle School Trivia Night tonight.)
Over at the Chamber of Commerce, Conlon and Gilman are appreciative of Pauly and Ramaikas’ accommodating attitude, having tied the success of home-based businesses to the bigger economic picture for the towns. “Should [a home-based business] grow to the point that it needs to be in a commercially-zoned building, we want to make sure it has the incentives to do so. We want to be as supportive as possible,” said Gilman.
Bob Zuckerman of The South Orange Village Center Alliance also acknowledged the importance of home-based businesses.
“I believe home-based businesses are important customers for our Village Center, and this is especially true during weekdays,” Said Zuckerman. “As everyone knows, South Orange does not have a lot of office space, and office workers typically make up the lion’s share of shoppers and diners in a downtown during the daytime work week hours. Without a large concentration of workers, small businesses have to rely largely on nearby residents to help support them during weekdays, and home based businesses are obviously an important part of that equation.”
“I think that local businesses have to provide a friendly and inviting atmosphere to encourage people who work at home to patronize their shops, and many of our establishments do just that,” said Zuckerman. “I also think that offering amenities aside of the food and drink is important. For example, Grid Iron Waffle Shop and Starbucks all offer free wifi for their customers.”
That’s a message that sisters Omosede (“Mo”) and Osemerr (“Oca”) Ayinde of The Rack on Springfield Avenue have taken to heart. The Rack celebrates its second anniversary in April. The sisters offer wifi and are continually upgrading their food and drink offerings. Over time, they’ve added brunch, programmed musical performances and have supported community events.
“Anyone coming here loves the food,” said Mo back in 2014. “Plus the comfortable seats and relaxing atmosphere.”
The soon to open Palmer’s Sweetery and Cafe at 1 Highland Place in Maplewood Village plans to carve out its niche with Bundt cakes and fried pastries. The cafe will also be open from early morning until 7 p.m., to give commuters the option to pick up a dessert on their way home from work. Although there are a handful of tables for people who wish to linger over their desserts, there will be no WiFi.
“We want to give people a chance to connect to one another and have conversations,” said Palmer’s owner Kia Palmer-Sherwood.
Want to meet the coffee shop owners? Click on any photo below to enlarge.