The Story of Us and Botany Coffee

It all started one slow Sunday afternoon four years ago. I remember it so clearly. My roommate Nikki and I were lounging in our living room with Aaron. Aaron liked me, but I was determinedly not interested in him. I was laying on the floor, Aaron was sitting in a chair next to me on his computer, and the late-summer sun was streaming through the windows. When we asked Aaron what he was up to, he sheepishly showed us a logo design that he was working on for an imaginary coffeeshop. “It’s just a pipe dream,” he said dismissively. “It won’t turn into anything.”

Fast forward to today, and here we are. We are married, and Botany Coffee is open. They are obviously two separate things, our marriage and our company, but they are so intertwined. Coffee has been a huge part of our relationship and our lives ever since we first met.

Aaron was playing acoustic bass in a folk band at the local specialty coffeeshop, and I was at the show by myself. We had mutual friends, but had never met. It was a classic situation - Aaron saw me and thought I was pretty, asked Nikki to introduce us, and fell for me when we all hung out a few weeks later. I was absolutely not interested in dating him, but I didn’t mind being friends (poor Aaron). By August, we were both working at the specialty café and all of my friends were trying to convince me to date Aaron. I was determinedly interested in someone else, and I did everything I could to make sure Aaron knew it. Sometime in December, Aaron decided it was time to move on and abruptly stopped talking to me. I responded by getting offended and no longer talking to him - so mature. This went on for about four months, until the other boy I liked broke things off with me and I slowly started to see the value of Aaron’s character and the respect with which he had always treated me.

Aaron took a trip to Grand Rapids, MI - where he had attended Calvin College for awhile - the exact same week that I stopped seeing the other boy. Aaron chose to add me in a group Snapchat photo he sent out while he was away. This was big news, since we literally hadn’t spoken in any format in four months! When I first received the snap, I was confused; had he heard that things were over between me and the other guy, and was swooping in when he had the opportunity? Or was he just ready to be friends again? Later on, I learned that he knew nothing of my “breakup” and was just reaching out a little olive branch. In any case, I snapped back, and by the end of the week when he returned home, we were snapping hundreds of times per day. Yes, hundreds!  

I was totally confused. I could tell that I was starting to develop feelings for Aaron, but I was also so afraid - afraid of hurting him again, afraid of being hurt myself so shortly after another relationship had ended, afraid of unintentionally using Aaron as a rebound guy. I sat out on our porch one night at 3am with Nikki, watching the moon and trying to work through my tangled thoughts. “I think I like Aaron!” I told her. “And I know that if I start dating him, we are going to get married.” That might seem ridiculous or crazy, but it was true. I knew that with Aaron, it wasn’t going to just be a short fling or a casual relationship. As a very shy and reserved introvert, I never looked for those kinds of relationships, but it was still different with Aaron. Something in the way he had always treated me, something about the way he smiled when we were together, something in his tender care for my well-being, had told me that he loved me long before we ever started dating. I knew it in those early months of our friendship, when I was so certain I didn’t like him. Perhaps it was the depth of the affection he felt for me that caused me to run during those early months.

We started hanging out when Aaron got home from Michigan, and after a week or two Aaron told me that he still had feelings for me and wanted to start a relationship. I shyly and so timidly admitted that I also liked him, but mentioned that I had just been hurt and didn’t want to rush into anything too quickly. We resolved to take things slow and feel it out as we went along; perhaps in a few months I would feel ready to make the relationship official. Fortunately for both of us, it didn’t take me anywhere near that long! Two weeks later we were dating, and it all went quickly from there.

Another conversation I remember clearly took place as we were driving from Bagel Boy to the mall on a Sunday afternoon date. We were heading to the GAP to pick out some new clothes for Aaron, and as we traveled, Aaron brought up the coffee shop dream again. He told me how he had a grandfather who had been an entrepreneur, and how Aaron hoped to use some support from him as part of the start-up funding for his café. It’s all a little blurry now, but I remember thinking how serious he was about this dream. It was then that I started trying to picture what our lives would look like as the owners of a coffee shop.

Four months after we started dating, we were engaged, and five months after we got engaged, we were married. It took me a whole year to figure out that he was the right guy for me, but once that finally got through my thick skull, we didn’t want to be apart for any longer than we had to be. Shortly after our engagement, Aaron competed in a local barista competition, and as we trained and planned, I could picture more clearly than ever what owning a coffeeshop together would look like. 

During our engagement, a digestive issue I had struggled with in the past reared its ugly head again and started limiting my diet and life severely. I made it through the wedding and our honeymoon alright, but had to leave work on a semi-regular basis after we got back home. It quickly became clear that caffeine and dairy were both big triggers for flare-ups, and it was then that I started realizing our dream of running a café together might not work after all. It was so disappointing, and I cried plenty of times as I saw that I could never function as a full half of our two-person team. 

At the same time that all of this was happening, Aaron was becoming increasingly discontent in his position at the coffeeshop we worked at. In March, he began looking for other jobs in earnest, and applied to Madcap Coffee Company in Grand Rapids. Aaron had gone to Madcap often while studying at Calvin, and it was their style of service and commitment to quality that really got him interested in specialty coffee in the first place. We waited until late May to hear back from Madcap, when we finally learned that he had been hired! We were expected in Michigan two weeks after he accepted the position. In the midst of the flurry of packing and planning, I saw a gastroenterologist and was put on a new diet to try and calm my symptoms. He confirmed that caffeine and dairy were two of the things that my body couldn’t digest, and I officially knew that I needed to look for a non-coffee job.

When we arrived in Grand Rapids, I knew my life was going to be very different. I had lived in Sioux Falls, SD my entire life up to that point, and I had worked in coffee for years. Now, I was in a new city and needed a job in a new field. It was this move that kickstarted my decision to start my own business. 

We were so excited to be in Michigan, at first. It was a new adventure, a bigger and more interesting city, and Aaron’s dream job. But I could never have anticipated how difficult it would be for me to make friends, for us to find a church, and the extent to which we would miss our family and friends who were now 12 hours away. Christmas came and we road tripped back to Sioux Falls, and I found myself desperately wishing not to go back to Michigan. Aaron saw my pain and started thinking about a way to remedy the situation - start up the coffeeshop. 

Our first idea was to purchase a multi-family home and use the income to slowly build up our savings account. In maybe five years, we would have a good start towards the amount we needed. We got pre-approved, met with a realtor, and looked at a house, but the house got sold before we could put in an offer and that kind of ended the plan for us. 

In January, Aaron decided to see if we could use money from his grandfather for part of the amount he needed to open the shop. We both thought it was a huge long shot; the amount was large, and the risk fairly high. We waited with baited breath until March, when the overseers finally chose to give us their decision: the money was ours! We started planning immediately. Our first thought was to move back to Sioux Falls and open the shop there, somewhere downtown. There was still only the one specialty shop there, so there was plenty of room in the market.  We looked into spaces to do a small pop-up and talked about who to hire. 

But, the more we thought, the more Sioux Falls didn’t seem like the right place to start. There would be a lot of awkwardness between Aaron and our previous employer. Aaron’s ideas were progressive and his menu would be much more limited than anywhere else in town, and we weren’t sure that there would be a lot of interest in the drinks he would be serving. Our thoughts started turning towards Minneapolis; it seemed perfect in so many ways. There was a much more established specialty coffee market, meaning that a more limited menu would fit in quite a bit better. Aaron also wanted the café to be non-tipping, and we knew a bigger city would be more receptive towards this idea, which hasn’t yet been widely implemented in the food industry. We already had friends and family located in the city, so we knew the transition would be much smoother, and the four-hour drive to Sioux Falls would feel like nothing compared to the 12 hours it took from Michigan. Last but not least, I knew there was a thriving art community in Minneapolis where I already had some connections. It seemed like the right place for Botany, but also for me to grow and expand my business!

As soon as we had decided on our location, we gave in our notice at our various work places and started planning for our move. By July, we were settled in a sweet apartment in St. Paul. We spent most of our early days in the city driving around in search of the perfect space for Botany. Aaron wanted Botany to be on the smaller side, and we were told by a broker that most spaces 1,000 square feet or less weren’t listed online. As we looked, we also started developing the aesthetic the space would have. We wanted it to be bright, airy, filled with natural light, and minimal. We also wanted to make sure the shop felt warm and inviting, as opposed to stark or sterile. We settled on a color palette of a few limited greens, white, and grey, with accents of blonde wood, brass, and concrete to add texture and warmth. There would also be plenty of live plants in the shop; how could there not be, with a name like Botany?

Sometime in the fall, discouragement started to set in. Aaron had come close to leasing a few spaces, but they had all fallen through for one reason or another. The overseers were re-thinking their decision to contribute, to the point that we were afraid our move had been very premature. If we were at all uncertain of our finances, we would have waited in Grand Rapids for a few more months until we had more clarity. Aaron took a job at an Amazon fulfillment center to fill his time and had to put a hold on searching for spaces, as we no longer had any capital to bargain with. We had hoped to be open by that point - or at the very least have construction on our space underway - but we started thinking it was more realistic to plan for an opening date several years in the future.

January rolled around, and Aaron was having a harder time than ever with the fact that Botany was on hold. Our funding was still on hold, and we had watched multiple spaces with lots of promise be leased by other business owners. Then, on our second wedding anniversary, we received news that we weren’t expecting in the least! The overseers had decided to contribute to Aaron much earlier than we thought, and it was deposited to our bank account within the week. Now that he had some of the start-up costs covered, Aaron applied for a Small Business Association loan to complete our funding. The process was detailed and rigorous, and we waited with anxiety while the bank sorted through the business plan and all of our information. Aaron entered into talks with a potential landlord about a space in South Minneapolis. It wasn’t an area we had spent much time looking in, but the landlords were pleasant and accommodating, the street corner was all set for a boom in the near future, the rent was relatively low, and the space was just under our 1,000 square foot size limit.

Things with the space were looking good, so we started meeting with an architect in early spring. They took our design ideas, provided us with a floor plan, and sourced materials for us. By late spring, the blueprints were complete, the contractor was chosen, the lease was signed, and we were all set to begin our build-out! We closed on our SBA loan in late April and couldn’t believe that our plans were finally starting to take shape!

When we first found our building, it was a huge warehouse that had been completely gutted from floor to ceiling. The whole space was open and unfinished, with dirt floors, raw stone, and no walls. The first step was to pour concrete in our unit, and then drywall went up and sectioned our space off from the rest of the building. Meanwhile, Aaron was working to put the finishing touches on all of the back-end business things, such as an employee handbook, finding an accountant, and choosing suppliers.

Watching our space take shape was one of the most rewarding things I’ve experienced. Aaron trusted me with most of the aesthetic decisions, and I had put hours into finding inspiration for our space. Each corner had been lovingly planned, from lights to paint colors to tile and grout types to wallpaper printed with my own coffee plant illustration. We drove to Botany twice a day, once in the morning to talk with the contractors and answer any questions they had, and then again in the evening to see all the progress that had taken place during the day. Slowly but surely, the bar took shape, the millwork started arriving, the tile was laid, and the concrete floor was sealed. Paint changed the space beyond recognition, and we started focusing on details like plants, ceramics and glasses, and condiment bar fixtures.

We made our first two hires sometime in May, choosing a wonderful married couple who both have lots of experience working in coffee. The husband had even worked at Madcap; we had met briefly on our first night in Grand Rapids, right after our move to Michigan and right before their move to Minneapolis. The space was finished in early July, and we breathed a huge sigh of relief when we passed all of our inspections and finally had all of the design elements in place! We spent the last week before our open date cleaning, creating and testing recipes, and tying up odds and ends with our signage. 

July 22nd was our soft open, and we were amazed by the response we had! All four of us were working for the whole shift, and the shop was full from the minute the doors opened until the minute they closed. Everything went relatively smoothly, and we were so excited for the next week! Monday - our official open date - was busy, as well, and the whole week surpassed our expectations. We couldn’t be more grateful!

I am filled to the brim with pride in my husband! He has put so much thought, effort, and work into Botany Coffee. At 25, Aaron has his own brick-and-mortar business and is living out his long-term ambition. I can’t believe that this once-distant dream of his is now our reality! I am not able to be his partner in business in all the ways that I hoped, but I do small behind-the-scenes things like dishes, errands, and emergency supply runs. I have absolutely loved working on the design elements of the shop, from the interior to the logo and printed materials like menus. I also enjoy tag-teaming on the Instagram account with Aaron! 

I would like to thank everybody who has supported us and both far and near, from those who have visited the shop to those who have prayed for us along this whole journey. We are humbled, thankful, excited, and oh-so-happy - and a little tired, of course. If you live in Minneapolis or are ever in the area, stop by and say hi! If you live a long ways away, stay up to date with our journey at botanycoffee.com or on Instagram at @botanycoffee. 

Which of us knew, on that slow Sunday afternoon in our sunny living room, that Aaron and I would be married and the owners of Botany Coffee four short years down the road? Not Aaron, and certainly not me! And what a wild ride we have been on to get to this point. It hasn’t always been easy - in fact, a lot of it has been more challenging than either of us ever imagined - but it’s always been right and good and sanctifying. And I am so looking forward to what the next four years brings! I hope that there is a little less change and excitement, a little more time to settle into our life and city, and a sense of peace and belonging in our current situation, whatever that may be. Because we certainly do feel peace and contentment about our life at the moment, crazy as it is, and that’s definitely something to be thankful for.

All photos by Emilie Anne Szabo.