When Tim Cheesebrow took the helm as the new co-owner of Coffee Grounds along with his parents and business partners, Bonnie and Dennis Cheesebrow, folks got a little nervous.
The beloved neighborhood coffee shop at 1579 Hamline Ave. N., Falcon Heights, had been a favorite hangout for parents and their broods, book clubs and craft groups, music lovers and locals looking for a comfortable spot to meet up with friends. Former owner Dave Lawrence and his crew had made everyone who walked down the stairs into the cavernous café feel welcome.
It was Falcon Heights’ version of Cheers, where everyone did, in fact, know your name. It was home away from home for many regulars, and the change in ownership was a bit unnerving.
No one understood that better than Tim Cheesebrow.
“Rest assured it will not become a Starbucks,” he wrote on Coffee Grounds’ Facebook page in January. “We are a local family business that will continue to run the shop with an independent spirit.”
It is with that same independent spirit that the Cheesebrow family also runs MusicWorks Minnesota (MWM), a nonprofit organization that works with at-risk youth through in-school and community programs. While looking for a location for the organization, Cheesebrow found Coffee Grounds when he was recording his album Home in the Heartland at Essential Sessions Studios around the corner.
“The Coffee Grounds space was the perfect fit to give MWM a stage for its community programming and to financially support the work of the nonprofit,” he said.
A few months later, the Coffee Grounds changed hands. With the passing of the torch came some immediate changes.
The name change to Underground Music Café rattled regulars at first but made sense—most of the space is underground.
But the new emphasis on music is what really matters to Cheesebrow. He sees the café as a venue for local bands that are being ignored by radio stations playing trendy music geared toward selling rather than creativity and originality.
“Musicians who are not conforming to the trends have had to go ‘underground,’ ” he said. “Here we give them a voice; we give them a stage.”
The coffee shop will also serve as community outreach for the nonprofit.
“Underground Music Café gives MWM a space to build awareness for the need of music education. If music lovers are coming here to get their dose of local music, they will learn about MWM and realize it’s worth supporting,” Cheesebrow said.
“Most nonprofits don’t have the advantage of having a bricks-and-mortar place where they can get the word out to a built-in audience of like-minded people.”
The new owners also wasted no time improving the quality of coffee and food at Underground Music Café, bringing in top local roaster True Stone as well as fresh pastries from April Fool Virtual Bakery and Gourmet Donuts of the Twin Cities, including gluten-free treats.
And they aren’t stopping there. The menu seems to expand daily with made-to-order pizzas, wraps, sandwiches and smoothies. Cheesebrow is working with the City of Falcon Heights on securing a license to add local craft beers to the menu, but he has already started serving wine with an impressive selection and a range of price points, including a $5 glass of house wine.
Slowly, the place is feeling more like the neighborhood café Cheesebrow envisioned. He is searching for a chef to create dinner specials that would be showcased exclusively on weekends. His ideas for specials include a variety of ethnic dinners like Greek or Thai and grilling burgers and brats on a coal-fire grill for summertime dinners.
Cheesebrow also brought on Dan Ratte as the new manager at Underground Music Café. The two met back in middle school. “I’m surrounding myself with childhood friends that I trust and have fun with,” he explained. “Like I said, this is a family business, and we view the community here in that way too.” Cheesebrow acknowledged there is a fine balance between “keeping what was here and remembering why people came here” and “growing and sustaining the business so we can be here for the community in the future.”
Change is hard, and Cheesebrow knows there may be a shaky transition period, but he is banking on people’s desire for a neighborhood hangout where they can take the family for a nice meal on a Friday evening or linger over a glass of cold-press coffee on the patio.
The new owners are planning a renovation in June that will include the addition of a curved bar, new floors, fresh paint, barn-wood accents and improved lighting.
Cheesebrow is launching a Kickstarter campaign on June 1 to raise funds for the stage area and sound system.
“We hope to have a grand re-opening celebration mid-July,” Cheesebrow said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun to see this place blossom.”
Alex Lodner is a freelance writer who lives in the Como Park neighborhood.