Congratulations to Laremy De Vries, owner of The Fruited Plane Cafe and winner of $1,000 as one of the runners up in our Small Biz, Big Ideas competition. We asked her to share a little bit more about her business and her big idea.
Tell us about yourself and you how you first got involved in small business?
“I’ve had coffee shop jobs throughout highs school and college. After graduating from college, one of my roommates and I decided to set up a coffee shop on campus. It was an ideal start for a young entrepreneur as the college purchased the equipment and also allowed us to pay rent for the space and equipment as a percentage of our income. It was a very small business, but a great way to cut my teeth.
After that I went to grad school and also worked off and on at cafes. After a stint teaching at my alma mater, there was a building for sale and a need for a local hangout, so I thought I’d give it a go. I worked with a local bank and the SBA, purchased the building, and became an owner of a real small business.
My father was also a farmer, and in a lot of ways, I see a lot of similarities in our lives. Farmers are the ultimate small businessmen. They are independent, have to have a wide range of skills from fixing equipment to balancing books, borrowing money properly, and selling their product. So you could say that I have been around small biz from a very young age.” Yes
Tell Us About How and When You Started Your Business?
“My wife and I spent a year living in the Netherlands and fell in love with the “”Bruin Cafes”” that dot the downtowns of every city. There really was no distinction between a “”coffee shop a “”bar,”” and a “”restaurant.”” These places truly were “”third places”” to use Howard Schultz’s famous idea. Places where people hung out, driven more by space than by a particular beverage or item.
After living on the East Coast for a while and working in a cafe there, we moved back home to Iowa to take a one year teaching position. After my contract was up and we were wondering what to do next, I revisited the idea of starting my own cafe. There was a coffee shop in town and a couple of bars, but none of them really satisfied the cosmopolitan tastes I had developed. In other words, it was hard to get good coffee or good beer and wine.
It also struck me that in a town of 7,000 people, it was important to have diversified offerings instead of just one niche. Our goal was to serve a wide variety of needs. I had a former boss who always said you’re paying your mortgage 24-7, so you may as well be making sales as much of that time as possible. Serving coffee and alcohol, pastries, lunch, and light fare made our business viable through the course of a whole day, not just one specific window of time.
So 5 years ago the Fruited Plain was born. We purchased our building on Labor Day Weekend of 2009 and spent the next 5 months doing most of the work ourselves to renovate the space from an old, boring auto parts store to warm, rustic cafe.
Our goal was quality products, but also quality space. We wanted mostly to be a place where people could feel comfortable and at home. We wanted to serve moms and toddlers in the mornings, business folks for lunch, and have concerts for college bands at night. We wanted to have many faces to our business, but all directed at the goal of being a place where people of all ages can come in and hang out. Our passion was for product and space, but ultimately for the community in which we lived and worked.”
How Did You Feel When You Found Out You Won the Prize?
“Well, it was a mixed reaction, of course. We had won the voting portion by a significant margin, so we really thought we had a strong chance of winning the $10,000. We knew there were other factors and judging involved, so we weren’t sure, but we thought our chances were good.
We were still quite happy and excited, of course. $1,000 is good money and will really give us a good start as we get to our goal. So I felt thankful. I felt excited. We’re going to have to wait a little longer to pull of our idea, but this makes it much more of a reality.”
What Was Your Small Biz, Big Idea?
“Our big idea is to take all the great things we do–coffee, beer, wine, food, and a great hangout–and take it outside. As I mentioned, we have a lot of European influences on our cafe, and since one of the great joys of traveling in Europe is dining al fresco in a lovely piazza, we’d like to incorporate that into the Fruited Plain experience.
Our building also has a 4,800 square foot parking lot next to it (it was originally the Ford dealership in the 1920s)which isn’t really used that efficiently now. We are going to take a portion of it–rougly half–and construct a nice patio space with pergolas, privacy fencing, and greenery. It will be a place where families can hang out, have a drink and a pizza, and let their kids run around a bit, knowing they won’t run in the street. It will be a place where we can have live music events, outdoor game tournaments, and other fun summer activities.
One of my goals is also to use the space to help various non-profits do fund-raisers. A couple of weeks ago, we had an event in the parking lot for a local organic farmer. He had some wind damage to some of his greenhouses and needed to raise some money for the repairs. He provided and sold brats, salad, and other food while we provided beer and other beverages. He was allowed to raise some money both in sales and donations utilizing his own staff of volunteers, and I was able to see a new influx of customers to buy drinks and have a busy night without having to prepare food and have extra staff. It was a nice win-win situation. With the new patio space, I hope to have more events like this throughout the summer. Hopefully we can feature a different non-profit each weekend.
Our intention is also to make the space flexible. We have a drive-thru at our shop, and would still like to utilize that, especially during the cold winter months. Our plan is to make a patio space that has gates. In the summer, we would close the space and set up tables, chairs, etc. to have an inviting enclosed outdoor space. During the winter we would open the gates so the space could be used as parking and so that our drive-thru is accessible. “”Multi-use”” is the watchword of the Fruited Plain. We always want to find was to use spaces for multiple purposes throughout any given day or season.”
What is Your Intention With The Money? How will you implement the idea?
The runner up prize isn’t enough to fully implement our idea, so we’ll have to take a bit more time to do some fund raising. We’re hoping over the rest of the summer and fall to start an indigogo campaign to raise some more funds for the project. The $1,000 is a great starting point. We may use a portion of the funds to help fund the indigogo project, thereby growing the money to be used toward our idea of building the patio.
For more information, don’t forget to check out to The Fruited Plain Cafe on Facebook.