Savor

Unmasking Opportunity

Pandemic forces partners to ‘pivot’ to new enterprises
encore-magazine-savor-stamped-robin-partners-nov-2020
Partners, from left, Mack and Walker Chrisman and Emily and Matt Deering-Caruso, stand in front of a bar found in a pole barn near Detroit that will be the focal point of the new café bar Two Twins.

© 2020 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

Last year The Stamped Robin, a popular Kalamazoo bar serving wine and craft cocktails, was ready to expand to “help people drink better at the end of the day,” says co-owner Matt Deering-Caruso.

He and his wife and co-owner, Emily Deering-Caruso, who are 27 and 29, respectively, and partners Mack and Walker Chrisman, 28 and 26, began renovating the long-vacant space adjacent to their lounge at 128 S. Portage St. for a new retail shop called Next Door that would feature wines, vermouths, craft beers, tasting events and classes as well as a coffee bar called Two Twins.

Then Covid-19 crashed their party.

But, to borrow that old phrase “when life hands you lemons … ,” the four found opportunity in catastrophe. Or, as Emily says, “we pivoted.”

“When we saw the West Coast shut down and then the East Coast was shutting down, we knew it was coming,” she says. “Matt started spending hours upon hours upon hours developing an e-commerce website over the course of less than a week, and we essentially launched Next Door online (nextdoorwinestore.com) and began doing wine delivery and pickup for customers.”

Using The Stamped Robin’s strong social-media following, they let customers know that Next Door and The Stamped Robin were open for business. In addition to wine and spirits, they featured “create-your-own-cocktail kits” with all the ingredients (minus the alcohol) and recipe cards for The Stamped Robin’s signature cocktails.

During a period when people were isolated at home and could use a good libation or two, their new business model of “let us bring you something to drink” was a hit.

“It was never really the initial strategy for us to get into e-commerce with Next Door,” Matt admits. “We always believed in the brick and mortar first and then eventually scaling to a digital presence. We didn't want to open e-commerce to just hustle to make money. We wanted to make sure that we could still supply great beer, wine and libations to people and carry the experience and energy of the Robin to a digital platform.”

With construction on the new space at a complete standstill, the new online model and grants from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) of the federal Small Business Administration and the Michigan Small Business Restart Program allowed them to continue operating without laying off any of their six employees. “Instead of us being bartenders, we were all delivery drivers,” Matt says, laughing.

But they weren’t quite done innovating. When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer allowed Michigan bars and restaurants to reopen in June, The Stamped Robin did so but was limited as to the number of patrons it could serve. So, as Matt says, they decided to “take the show on the road,” creating Little Bird, a mobile cocktail cart that brings libations to small outdoor gatherings.

“That's kind of my bread and butter right now,” Matt says. “We built a program for small groups with time limits, so I'm able to go into a dinner party for six, make a couple of cocktails for 30 minutes, pack it up and do that three more times in a day. We had a ton of fun with this over the summer.”

Back to business

Even with the lifted restrictions, it still took several months to get their brick-and-mortar renovations back in gear. The partners’ plans included exposed brick walls, a vintage tin ceiling, a pre-Prohibition bar saved from a pole barn north of Detroit, and reclaimed wood flooring acquired from a middle school in Indiana. But their contractors had a backlog of clients, as did city inspectors, so the partners did what they could when they could, including stripping paint from each tin ceiling tile by hand and dismantling and reinstalling the wood floor in their new space board by board. “It was a massive undertaking,” Matt admits.

“I mean we had brothers, sisters, moms, friends, everybody … ,” Emily adds.

“It was definitely a village effort, for sure,” Matt says.

Next Door is now on track to open this month.

On a day in October, as Mack Chrisman, in painter’s whites, rolled primer on new drywall in the space, he admitted to looking forward to putting construction behind him and getting back to creating the city’s first café bar, serving not only coffee, but also coffee-centric alcoholic cocktails.

“Customers can expect a well-refined menu of specialty coffee offerings, ranging from traditional espresso beverages to experimental process pour-overs,” Chrisman says.

A double duality

Chrisman is no stranger to local coffee aficionados: The self-described “coffee nerd” is a sought-after consultant who brought his coffee expertise to both Fido Motors Café, at 1415 Fulford St., and Civil House Coffee, at 344 N. Rose St. He has a decade of experience in the world of coffee, including spending time in Nashville, Tennessee, learning the ins and outs of coffee.

The coffee bar’s name, Two Twins, not only reflects the partners’ dual husband-and-wife teams, it also reflects its connection to The Stamped Robin. “It has to do with the duality between caffeine and alcohol.

One's an upper, one's a downer,” explains Chrisman. “But the way that we enjoy them and the culture that surrounds those things is the same. People come together and they have drinks and they talk about life and it dissolves the social barriers between people.”

At the same time, the way the flavor components of grapes make certain wines taste the way they do is similar to the way coffee beans — more specifically, how they’re roasted — affect the flavor profile of a brew. Which is why Two Twins will serve brews made with ethically sourced, single-origin coffee beans from Proud Mary Coffee, a roaster that operates out of Portland, Oregon, and Australia. “The product will speak for itself,” says Chrisman.

The greater Kalamazoo region has no shortage of coffee-oriented cafés, from quick stops to more intentional destinations, where fresh ground pour-overs take time to create. Two Twins will have both, Chrisman says. Rotating roasts in self-serve urns will be available for $2.50 to $3.50 a cup, paid for on the honor system. The results of more-extravagant coffee-making processes, like the fermentation of beans in a container that removes all oxygen from the air inside before they are sent to the roaster, will start at about $6 a cup.

In addition to brewing the coffee, Chrisman says he is excited to offer bags of Proud Mary’s coffee for sale, including some of the company’s award-winning, limited-release coffees.

“They have these really high-end, award-winning coffees that are extremely limited in quantity and in extremely high demand. At Christmas, we’ll be selling 100 grams of this coffee in these really cool little metal tins. If you have someone in your life who is a coffee snob, there’s no greater gift than coffee that there’s maybe only 200 pounds in existence in the whole entire world.”

As the partners finish the space and prepare it for opening, they know that Covid-19 is still a threat and can derail their plans yet again. But they don’t fear it.

“When Covid hit,” says Matt, “we were like, ‘OK, we got this new thing. We got to figure it out.’ There was lots of battening down the hatches and adjusting to different things. But, you know, we kept seeing the good things that we were able to do because of it. I believe if we didn't have the shutdown that our e-commerce wouldn’t be up right now or Little Bird, our mobile bar. And now we're going to open a brick-and-mortar (business) with an already solid following.

“For us to have this digital backbone to this business and then also have a physical location will be a really nice unity.”

— Chris Killian also contributed to this story

Category: 

Coffee and Cocktails

"One's an upper, one's a downer. But the way that we enjoy them and the culture that surrounds those things is the same. People come together and they have drinks and they talk about life and it dissolves the social barriers between people.”

— Mack Chrisman