For the Love of Coffee

Mark Smutek"I'm glad I stuck with coffee," Mark Smutek, Founder of Water Street Coffee Joint, told an audience of nearly 60 people at Startup Grind Kalamazoo's Fireside Chat on March 30th. Mark was influenced from grade school on by his family's culture, and knew he didn't want to work for anyone else. When Mark graduated from Western Michigan University (WMU), he felt it was the perfect time to start a business since there was nothing to lose at that point. Mark knew his business wouldn't be in finance or math, the areas he barely made it through while at WMU. Since Mark felt he had to create a business based on his passions, he decided it was a choice between a CD music store, or coffee. While still working at the Heritage Company, Mark was able to work on the build out of the coffee shop. He also had help from the salvage company to be able to put items in the shop. In 1993, Mark opened the first Water Street Coffee Joint, and hasn't stopped since.

Although Water Street now has four locations, plus a kitchen and a roasting facility, it wasn't always easy to provide a coffee side choice. Mark's mom originally provided muffins from her place in Dearborn, over 100 miles east of Kalamazoo. Much of the process of building the Water Street business has included resourcefulness, sometimes to the point of being flawed. For example, Mark is able and likes to work on the building construction projects. While remodeling the newest location in Portage, he was working 80 hours a week and could have kept a bed there. Mark said that sometimes it is worth hiring instead of doing the work yourself. Hiring means that the work will probably get done faster and better. In the beginning, however, he was the best source. The photograph is of a photo taken on the first day of construction on the first Water Street location. The photo was missing until recently. Mark happily shared it with the audience, letting it be passed around and then carefully returned to its envelope.

When it comes to working, the examples above prove that Mark believes in doing what it takes, when necessary. Overall, he Day 1wants everyone in the company to have a work-life balance. For Water Street, that has meant having core employees of 12 to 15 people in each area. By doing that, it allows the managers to have a life. Mark stated that it is important to keep employees interested and challenged, and that the pay is a part of the packager for employees to want to stay a long time.

One of the top questions was if Water Street would continue to grow. Although a "chain" within Kalamazoo, each Water Street location has its own ambiance. Mark will loosely state what he is looking for and the creative director is responsible for everything. Mark gets ideas from visiting other cities and bringing back some of what he likes. Does it make you wonder what the next Water Street will offer and where it might be located? The locations are chosen with a "gut" feeling, along with accessibility, parking, and the landlord, then they work as a team to put it together.

Creating your own business doesn't come with a book. It is about learning as you go. Mark had some words of wisdom to offer for anyone venturing down a similar path:

  1. Know what you are not good at.

  2. Live below your means and reinvest everything possible.

  3. Be as generous as possible, in money or spirit/soul.

Mark said that he was glad he stayed in Kalamazoo: "I've had a magical and fortunate experience in an amazing town,"

Other topics Mark mentioned:

  • Working at Heritage company

  • A typical day

  • The different areas of Water Street business

  • Competition thoughts

  • Biggest obstacles

  • Lessons - including ice cream

  • Mentoring

If you would like to view more about the event, please visit Mark's’ Startup Grind interview page here. Thanks!

(Photos contributed by Stacy Burdette)

Are you interested in more fireside chats? On Tuesday, April 21st, come to the Startup Grind – Kalamazoo fireside interview at Maestro (401 E. Michigan, Suite 202, Kalamazoo, MI 49007 – above Food Dance). Hear Laura and Ryan Vaughn talk more about their stories and meet the couple in person.

Food will be available starting at 6pm, with the interview starting at 7pm.  Book your ticket and invite your friends to join our community.

Purchase Your Ticket:

We will have a mix of founders and entrepreneurial-minded leaders from a mix of industries, and with diverse backgrounds and knowledge, over the coming year at Startup Grind. Join our community today and tell us what you want to see, do, and learn!

Startup Grind Kalamazoo -

- See more at: