Local coffee shops hold their own against chains


With a Starbucks on nearly every busy corner of Fort Wayne, Tim Hortons building its own stable of cafes around town, and other chains moving into the area, you might think that locally owned coffee shops were doomed to go the way of dinosaurs.

For the most part, you would be wrong.

“I am very pleased to report that business is doing very well for us. We saw our best year yet last year,” said Cyndi Demaree, who owns and operates the Firefly, on North Anthony Boulevard, with her husband Paul.

The Demarees have been running the Firefly in the same location for 17½ years. Not all of those years were easy, Cyndi said.

There was a little dip when Starbucks first came to the area, and then again when the recession took hold in 2008.

“We did find we were able to keep going but never able to really grow that much…but a lot of that was the recession. It didn’t really have that much to do with competition,” she said.

Demaree’s daughter, Allison Demaree-Coale, also came home and joined the family business, and that has helped drive its recent growth, Cyndi said.

“She’s been wonderful for quality control, for training, for social media,” Demaree said. “She’s all over that and she’s very good with it and it’s been a huge boost.”

Demaree said she had tried doing some social media herself to build awareness and traffic, “but you can only wear so many hats. It’s better to have somebody younger in there who is confident in it and comfortable and really understands it.”

Just a few doors down from the Firefly is Old Crown Coffee Roasters, and both have been able to survive and thrive despite the proximity. Old Crown expanded into more of a restaurant and bar, while the Firefly retains its classic coffee-is-king persona.

Bon Bon’s Coffee Co. opened its third location in Fort Wayne earlier this year, at the Orthopedic Hospital of Lutheran Health Network. There already was a Tim Hortons at Lutheran Hospital, but its south lobby location is a good walk from the ortho facility.

Brian Kieffer, the owner of Bon Bon’s, in 2012, bought two Higher Grounds locations, one in St. Joe Village near Kroger and the other at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne. He changed the name to Bon Bon’s in 2013.

The first Higher Grounds started in Fort Wayne in 1996, and the name was well known and the business well liked. It was a big challenge to rebrand it from a customer loyalty standpoint, Kieffer said.

“It took a lot of effort, of proving myself, to just say ‘just try this, come along with me and I can prove that what I’m doing here is as good if not better,’ ” he recalled.

A second challenge came when Kroger decided to expand the St. Joe store, taking over the spot that Bon Bon’s had occupied. Kieffer wanted to stay near the intersection of St. Joe Center and Maplecrest roads, and found a location just a stone’s throw away in a high visibility Maplecrest strip center. It has worked out well, he said.

In some ways, Demaree said, small, locally owned coffee shops have benefited from the introduction of better coffee to a large number of customers that has been provided by Starbucks.

“When they come into an area, it is kind of scary to the owner of a small coffee house, but we appreciate the fact they train their staff well; and their customers, once they get a taste of Starbucks and understand specialty coffee, a lot of times they will start looking for the local coffee places,” Demaree said. “So we actually feel they do an education for the community and that only benefits the small-business owner.”

Starbucks also has gotten people used to the idea of routinely paying $5 or more for a cup of coffee. The locals stay in that same range to be competitive, even though they offer what they believe is a better quality cup of java.

What makes places like Bon Bon’s and the Firefly stand out, however, is that they offer better service and a unique atmosphere along with their carefully brewed beverages, their owners insist. So, even if the price were a little higher on some items, “I think from a loyalty standpoint, from a quality standpoint, if you put out a good product people will be willing to pay for that,” Kieffer said.

Cafes and bake shops like Tim Hortons also go well beyond coffee in terms of what they serve, so in some respects it’s not even an apples-to-apples comparison, Demaree added.

(Linda Lipp writes for Greater Fort Wayne Business Weekly. Read her full report at fwbusiness.com.)