SPOONER -- It's true, Robert Ortmann and his wife Michelle have sold the coffee shop they've owned and operated since November 18, 2002, which is almost fifteen years to the date.
It was while Robert was working for Baumgart's Flooring and Custom Cabinets that he started thinking of what it would be like to own and operate a coffee shop. Originally from Warroad, Minnesota, Robert started looking around his adopted home where his wife was born, for a suitable building. There was none.
This was the time when there were no coffee shops in the area and after reading a book his Cornerstone Church pastor, Bob Otto, gave him titled Wild at Heart, he and Michelle, a stay at home mother with small children started studying the coffee shop business in earnest.
He credits Michelle for her question, “What would you do if you never do it?” It was exactly the challenge he needed and that's when he got serious finding a place.
No one ever expected him to open a coffee shop on Spooner's north side. Ever since the cheese shop went out of business, there was no retail in that area, an antique store, but nothing food related. There had been several attempts at businesses in the old house before the antiques, like the Beanstalk that carried children's clothes, and several other clothing venues gave it a try, but nothing clicked.
The owner of the antique shop, and fellow Cornerstone Church member, Richard Melton was doing business in the three-story building and garage directly west of the church, running it as Poor Richard's Antiques.
All three floors were stuffed full of items, but when Robert approached him asking if he would ever consider selling, Richard said sure, he already had his eye on a piece of property even farther north that better suited his needs.
The Ortmann's would live in the house and create a coffee shop in the garage.
It took a while to empty both the house and the garage of their original contents, and meanwhile, much to Robert's consternation, the Rail Road Express opened on Walnut and Front Streets-another coffee shop.
“The women who opened it were very nice though and they very helpful with information and tips. They even sent a beautiful plant for opening day.”
Robert and Michelle worked like crazy people until they wised up. Pretty soon their seven long days a week gave way to shorter days and fewer hours. They offered game nights and open mike nights to bring in business, but they did best as a morning and early afternoon coffee shop, plain and simple.
Something that fascinated many and impressed everyone was how Robert knew not only your name, but your 'usual' drink the second time you walked in. “That's simple,” he explained. “I went to college in Georgia and I worked at a dry cleaners part-time. The owner of the shop was the one who told me that it was very important for people to be called by their name, so by the time the customers returned the second time, I was to have their names down pat.”
Because of a tag on the underside of their inside steps, they discovered that their house was one of the original Sears Homes that could be ordered from the Sears catalog and delivered by train into town. The original do-it-yourself house-kit not only contained the lumber, the nails and the shingles, but also the hardware, doors and paint, along with detailed instructions on how to put it together. None of the first hundred or so houses contained material for a bathroom because this was still outhouse outback.
They also learned the house, with its four bedrooms and full attic had been used a boarding house for young women who either worked in town or were going to school and didn't have transportation to and from the farm.
It was Michelle, her friend and a niece who used their green thumbs and turned the patio facing the street into a garden area with a nod to the native plants of Wisconsin and where pastel tables and chairs are tucked in between the ground flora and the climbing vines giving the area a French accent.
Eventually, Michelle got a part-time position with the United States Post Office and as their kids graduated she also became a part of the Spooner City Council. But even though business has never been better, they both knew it was time to let someone else brew the coffee and create the menu. Michelle will keep her job and Robert will be taking a short rest and then looking into what he'd like to do next.
Meanwhile, Gretchen Peterson Hazel, along with her husband Ken have purchased the property and will assume operations on Saturday, September 23.
Gretchen is a 1993 graduate of Shell Lake High School and attended UW-Stout, graduating with a degree in Hospitality and Tourism Management. Gretchen's parents, Roy and Candie Peterson opened the world for Gretchen and her sister Jennifer when they took them on mission trips to Haiti and family vacations. One familiar and very special trip she remembers was their family's trip on both Disney's Big Red Boat and the Walt Disney World parks in Orlando, Florida. It opened her eyes to an industry she had never before considered, hospitality.
Her first job after graduation was in the New York City area with Hospitality Valuation Service (HVS) where she and commercially appraised and consulted on all types of hotel and food and beverage properties.
After nearly four years, she had an opportunity to relocate to Dallas, Texas and join Wyndham International.
During her time in Dallas, she met and married Ken Hazel who was originally from Michigan. Ken is an entrepreneur at heart and has worked with business and IT organizations in the areas of sales, customer service, finance/accounting and computer programming.
They share a love for business and together had a dream to open their own coffee shop.
They created a business plan and pursued an opportunity in a high growth area outside of Dallas, but had to set it aside when 9-11 occurred and the economy took a turn for the worse.
In 2002, Ken and Gretchen relocated to Atlanta, Georgia when Gretchen received an opportunity to join InterContinental Hotels Group's (IHG) corporate office.
During her fifteen years with IHG she's had the opportunity to work in multiple areas of the hospitality business including food and beverage.
They are blessed with two sons, Nathan, age nine and Andrew, age six.
After fifteen years making their original dream business plan, they came back to the Spooner area this year for a family vacation. They learned that Alley Cats Coffee Shop was for sale and quickly realized how unique and special it was.
That was in July and now, only two months later, they've left Atlanta and are ready to embark on their dream.
The core success areas of the coffee shop will stay the same: same menu items and great staff.
“Like the old saying,” Ken says, “If it ain't broke, don't fix it.”
They will look at ways to continually improve the business and introduce new items over time to see if they are popular.
While living in Georgia they've both learned to love southern sweet tea and it might be a special on the menu come spring and coffee tasting events are also being considered.
Their sons are enrolled in and attending the Spooner School and already feel at home making many new friends.
“The Spooner area,” says Ken, “is one of the friendliest places I've ever been.”
“We're very impressed with Robert and Michelle and how they've built Alley Cats Coffee to be the beloved community icon it is today.”, adds Gretchen.
“We're excited to have the opportunity to purchase the business and continue the legacy they've established by embracing the same ideals that make Alley Cats so great, same great menu, same high-quality menu products, same excellent staff and the same pleasant and welcoming atmosphere.
“The coffee shop has been frequently been referred to us as the “Cheers” of coffee shops and that's the unique part we've personally experienced and enjoyed and are excited to sustain for the community.”
The business hours will stay the same initially, Monday through Saturdays from 7:00a to 4:30p, but the Hazels are eager to hear from their customers to determine what additional operating hours would be welcomed.