Jamie Bartow didn’t expect to be grinding coffee beans and making lattes at this point in his life. When he started his freshman year in college in 2005, his sights were set on becoming an economist. “I was idealistic,” he remembered. “I wanted to work with the Federal Reserve Bank and help turn this economy around. I wanted to make a difference in the world.”
He had big dreams, and he believed the myth about how life works in America: ie learn how the system works, play by the rules, work hard and you’ll find the success you’re looking for. But, when he started taking economics courses in college, what the professors asked him to do was to use a lot of calculus to crunch numbers and analyze data. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be,” he recalled. It was like that woman in your GPS was also in his head saying, “Recalculating.”
So he adapted. In his sophomore year he changed his major to journalism, but when it came time to register for his junior year, he realized that he had run out of money. On top of that, he had just broken up with his girlfriend. “I became incredibly dejected,” he recalled. “My choices were to borrow money, finish my degree and be burdened with $80,000 in debt or leave school and try to find a job in central Wisconsin in a bad economy.” It was another moment when he had to recalculate and adapt. He decided to move to the big city and make his dream happen in an alternative way.
Jayne Ertel and Heidi Vance never thought they would own a coffee bar. “Necessity,” Vance explained, “is the mother of invention.” The “Blondes,” as many in town refer to them, have a lot in common with Bartow, who works for them in the recently opened Counter Coffee bar at the corner of Madison and Circle.
As entrepreneurs, they – like their barista – had to adapt to a tanking economy and changing configuration of businesses on Madison Street. In 2003 they moved into their first location at 350 Circle, on the second floor above what is now Jimmy John’s. When they outgrew that space, they borrowed money and bought the property where the coffee bar is now located, 7324 Madison. When they needed even more space they moved Team Blonde to 7442 Madison. As the economy changed, they had to keep changing their inventory and business model. They had to adapt.
When the tenant renting the space at 7324 Madison moved out and they couldn’t find another tenant, they had to do something in order to pay the mortgage. “Opening a coffee bar was not part of our business plan at all,” Ertel explained. “We had to do something with the space.”
Like Bartow, the Blondes had to adapt to a reality they hadn’t planned on. “We didn’t know how to do this in the beginning,” Vance continued, “but we do know how set businesses up, and we know how to figure it out. You have to bob and weave.”
One of their first hires was Bartow who had worked himself up to the position of supervisor at the Starbucks, located just two blocks east of the coffee chain’s newest competitor. The 25-year-old had moved from Central Wisconsin to our area in 2010, coming to the big city to seek his fortune. Four months later and having found no fortune, the young man with an associate’s degree starting working at the Starbucks on Madison and Elgin for minimum wage.
“It’s so hard,” Bartow confessed, “not to get down about everything, and it’s not just me. It’s everybody I know. Everybody around me in my generation works hard. They try and nothing comes back to them.”
Acknowledging that “there are a few who get lucky or catch a break,” he added, “I get down personally knowing that I’m an intelligent, capable entrepreneurial young man who has a whole lot to give. I could make a positive impact in any number of areas yet even if I decide to pursue that, it might not pan out the way I planned.”
Bartow had to give up a “very nice” insurance package from Starbucks, he said. He’s hoping to find a competitive plan through the Affordable Care Act, and he said the Blondes are giving him third party insurance leads.
“I have no regrets abandoning my coverage based on the overall increase in mental and emotional health since leaving Starbucks,” he said.
Meanwhile, at the newly opened Counter Coffee, the Blondes weren’t just bobbing and weaving. Although they have recalculated their business model several times out of necessity, the two entrepreneurs aren’t ethical chameleons when it comes to their principles.
“We’re green to the core,” Vance declared, “not because it’s kitsch or trendy right now. Those values are in both Jayne and I anyway.”
Putting their money where their mouths are, Ertel and Vance furnished Counter Coffee largely with lumber and corrugated metal they recycled from the farm Vance’s parents own. They pay $4.70 per gallon for the milk they buy from a family farm near Fairbury, Ill. instead of buying less expensive dairy products from CAFOs, ie. corporate concentrated animal feeding operations.
When they approached Intelligentsia – the company supplying their coffee beans – the Blondes asked if they sold fairly traded coffee.
“They said ‘we do better than that,'” Vance recalled. “They literally travel to the growers and work with them directly. They pay the workers at least 25 percent more than even fair trade wages.”
Ertel said that being green, buying dairy from a family farm and using fairly traded coffee adds thirty to forty cents to the cost of a cup of coffee at their store. “We made those choices because of our values,” she said.
When Bartow became aware of what the Blondes were doing, he moved from Starbucks to Counter Coffee. One reason was that he likes the whole shop local concept. “I’ve known Jayne and Heidi now for a while. They are family friends as opposed to working for Howard Schultz, this billionaire in Seattle who will never know who I am.”
Another reason why he moved two blocks west is what he called the “spirituality” of the business. He explained, “There’s a connection, a deeper meaning to even a little coffee shop like this, because Heidi and Jayne put their beliefs into what they do. Living what you believe is the truest form of spirituality.”
While Vance admitted to enjoying the “bobbing and weaving” she and Ertel have had to do in order to adapt and survive on Madison St., Bartow is ready for a stage in his life when he doesn’t have to do so much recalculating. He still keeps the dream of being a broadcast journalist in front of him.
In the meantime, he explained how he deals with his seeming inability to make progress toward that dream. “It’s such a simple, little thing,” he said, “yet it’s inspirational and beautiful. If I can positively affect someone else with a cup of coffee, why wouldn’t I? Something so simple and easy for me and yet I can make a profound difference in someone’s day. That’s the purpose I find here, the reason for me to get up and come here. I can positively affect change in a small way.”