The Demise of Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee, Part one

For Jaime and Brian’s last day at Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee. They have been let go due to a change in ownership, in spite of the fact that Great Lakes owes its success to this dynamic duo. I never will understand how so-called “business people” think.

Anyway, to Jaime and Brian: So long and thanks for all the bean juice. Your fans will catch up with you in the other place. Wink, wink.

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Great Lakes Chocolate and Coffee

Let’s suppose there was a place where everyone knew your name. No, not in Boston, but a small town. Somewhere like…oh, Sturgis, Michigan. And let’s suppose that this place wasn’t a bar named Cheers, but a coffee shop. Something like, I don’t know, maybe, Great Lakes. Now let’s suppose that it wasn’t a mythical place, nor a place invented for television, but a real place.

This coffee shop would share a very unique connection to Cheers. The fact that it would be the kind of place where everyone does, in fact, know your name. It’s clientele would be made up of lots and lots of regular customers. People who need the camaraderie to be found there maybe more than they crave the caffeine or really flavorful specialty beverages like lattes or frozen concoctions, or fruit smoothies.

Why do people spend time and money congregating in a bar like Cheers, or a coffee shop like this place known as Great Lakes? Oh, sure, they’re going to have a product worth paying premium prices to purchase, but that’s not the real reason. The real reason is the camaraderie. The feeling of being treated special.

When the people serving the public see a regular walk in and begin preparing the drink before they even order it, that’s special treatment. That’s the server telling this regular customer, “You’re special to me. I have taken the time and the trouble to know what you want. Not to be ingratiating, but because you’re more than a customer. You’re a friend, and this is your place and I’m here to make you feel welcome.”

When the server knows the customer’s name, and asks about their children, or their spouse, or their job, or good naturedly banters with them while they’re being served, this is special. It makes the customer feel unique and individual, and a part of something bigger than a coffee shop. It makes the customer feel like part of a community, or even part of a family of sorts.

Yes, this Great Lakes is a special coffee shop, filled with special product, special people, and a special feeling. Something missing in the sterility of chain stores and corporate mania. It’s a step back to a better, friendlier, more unique and special time. An oasis from the sameness that fills so much of our lives these days.

There’s a reason why people were attracted to watching Cheers. Much of it had to do with the feeling they got that this was a place, which if it existed in their town, could make them feel special. It was as close as most people would ever get to this sort of feeling in modern America. But it did identify a longing, maybe even a need in people to be part of something that could make them feel this way.

Sturgis, Michigan is lucky. It has gotten to have the real thing. A Cheers-like place where people can go. A place where each one of them can be treated special. A place where everybody does indeed know their name.

I’ve been in coffee shops in a lot of places. I’ve had good coffee, I’ve had bad. I’ve been made to feel good, and I’ve left feeling like I didn’t matter at all to the servers. But I’ve never been in a coffee shop, anywhere, anytime, that had as good a line of products, top to bottom as does Great Lakes. I’ve never been treated as well and made to feel as special just by walking in the door as
I’ve been made to feel at Great Lakes.

Like Cheers came to an end, so too will Great Lakes. Cheers got canceled because of tired story lines and low ratings. Great Lakes is being changed from inside, even at the pinnacle of its success and in spite of the fragile nature of its uniqueness.

I have found out that Great Lakes is being sold. At least the location is being franchised to new people. People who are looking at the success of the place as a business investment. Not an investment in community, in camaraderie, of all of those special feelings and the unique meaning that the place has for each of its customers. It’s a business decision, plain and simple. It’s a little bit of greed and a whole lot of hubris, but it’s not about the customers who will be turned off to new ways and methods and people behind the counter who will not give them the feeling of specialness.

As difficult as it will be, many of us who have built the customer base of this place will no longer find that spark there that drew us in and kept drawing us back. Many of us will drift aimlessly, not finding another place like the one we have known and counted on and, yes, loved. Others will find someplace else to get some semblance of that special feeling. Another coffee shop, perhaps, or a small town diner, or somewhere else we can meet and commiserate with our friends and neighbors.

Whatever we do and wherever these changes take us, the time spent in loyalty and friendship at Great Lakes will always live inside of us. We’ll all smile wistfully when thinking about what once was, and maybe our eyes will mist up in lamenting what no longer is. The experience of this place has left us different, and it’s largely intangible as to how. But we know that new owners with no sense of this unique bond, and no skills at serving the public in these special ways, will just never get it. They look at the place and its customers as a bottom line on a financial ledger, and due to this, they will kill what made it such a great place all along.