The Sparrows welcomes community, grows with Wealthy Street neighborhood

Small Businesses As Third Places Experience Growth
Inspired by the gathering places of early 20th century writers and poets in Russia, Lori Slager and two friends set out to make a coffee shop in Grand Rapids where they'd like to hangout. Now, The Sparrows is the gathering space for neighbors and has been a catalyst for more neighborhood growth.

Some businesses become neighborhood hangouts by happenstance. But in the case of The Sparrows coffee shop in Grand Rapids, the idea of creating a community gathering space predated even the idea to make great coffee.

"We just wanted to make a place where we would want to hang out," says Lori Slager, owner of The Sparrows. "It was over the years that we started pursuing higher quality coffee. Only after we got the community part down did we really start looking into that."

It all began in 2007 when finding jobs was tough for Slager and two friends with art and Russian history degrees among them. They decided to make their own jobs in the form of a business that would act as a community space. Inspired by the early 20th century meeting place for Russian writers and poets in St. Petersberg, they called their business The Stray Dog Café.

"We knew things were happening on Wealthy Street," Slager says. "We were talking about opening a coffee shop one night and drove down Wealthy, saw the space and said, 'OK we're doing this, in this space.'"

Location and atmosphere play no small part in creating a business where people feel comfortable enough to spend time. The storefront on Wealthy St. had been carefully renovated in the 1990s after being nearly destroyed by fire. The end result was a building so compelling to Slager and her partners that there was no doubt it would be the home of their café.

"The building is beautiful," she says. "It was the wood floors that drew us in, and it has this cozy, old-timey kind of feel. All we did to it was build the bar."

Though the right building set the overall ambiance, no detail was too small to play a role in building a true "third space" for the neighborhood. Slager recalls even moving the outlets from the front of the shop to the back to encourage both social and work atmospheres to flourish in separate parts of the building. Other meaningful details include a bustling event board and carefully chosen magazines for their browsing racks.

"We have chosen types of magazines that help us curate the clientele we're looking for," says Slager. "At the beginning we had the grocery store magazines. Now we have more obscure, artsy magazines. We end up drawing in customers for that."

By any measure, such fine-tuning has borne out the results Slager was looking for. Now the sole owner of The Sparrows, Slager says on any given day the café is bustling with an array of neighborhood patrons. Some rush in and out for their daily coffee, others plug in and set themselves up to work and study, and other groups pass through for meetings, dates or just to say 'hi.'

The regularity and friendliness of this comfortable crowd didn't happen by accident either. Slager says she attracted great patrons with great staff.

"We're particular about who we hire," she says. "We hire people who are creative and interesting, and then all their friends will start coming. That helps create the atmosphere. Somehow they end up making the place what it is."

The Sparrows staff members are also trained to reach out and interact with customers, which causes customers to interact with each other, thus creating a social effect throughout the café.

"It's a really good place to meet people in your community," Slager says. "People just come in to find out what's going on in the neighborhood."

At The Sparrows, that friendliness and sense of community extends beyond the coffee shop walls. Though one might assume the well-known Madcap Coffee just a couple miles away in downtown Grand Rapids might be the shop's biggest rival, Slager considers them colleagues. She even recently took her staff to a training at Madcap to learn from their renowned coffee making skills.

"We follow Madcap Coffee," she says. "They have lots of good ideas. It's not us against them; it's both of us against Starbucks. The little guys all ban together."

The impact of the café's commitment to being a community space has been growth for The Sparrows – now with a staff of nine, Slager says the place practically "runs itself" as she dedicates most of her time to running a non-profit – but the neighborhood has also grown along with the shop.

"It just blew up," Slager says of the commercial area surrounding The Sparrows. "When we first opened, there was hardly anything happening. Now, all the restaurants bring in people from all over the city. It's just exciting to see it bustling all the time."

That includes such popular spots as the Electric Cheetah, a restaurant whose soups The Sparrows carried before they even opened. Even with all of those other businesses contributing to the bustle, The Sparrow's role in that growth, and it's continued place in the neighborhood, is unquestioned. That's a reminder Slager gets every time she sees an ad for an apartment that boasts it's "right next to The Sparrows."

"Then people just come in and use the space to meet people in the community and find out what's going on," Slager says. "That was our intent form the beginning."

Small Businesses As Third Places Experience Growth
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Lori Slager
The Sparrows, Owner

With the growing number of bars and restaurants in your area, what continues to attract to many people to The Sparrows as a hangout?
We're kind of the safe place. You can meet here and you don't have to commit to a meal or worry about having too much to drink. A lot of first dates and a lot of business meetings happen here.

What is your favorite coffee drink?
I have to say espresso, especially Madcap's Third Coast. It's delicious.

Where you do you hang out on your days off?
I go hangout at Madcap sometimes. I like to walk around and run. The ideal perfect day is to go to the beach, for sure, but I do spend a lot of time at Sparrow just hanging out. I think everyone who works there goes there everyday. We're all friends.

If you could add one thing to your neighborhood, what would it be?
Probably more greenspace, if that's possible. There is a small urban farm down the road, but more park space with big trees and park benches would be a great, a place to go and have lunch.

Do you ever host events at The Sparrows?
We get a lot of studiers and business meetings and we don't want to disrupt that with events. We've done a few poetry readings and some private parties. We do have a classical guitarist on Friday nights.