Last Mile Café: Brewing Good Coffee and Great Values in Grand Rapids

A Michigan Women Forward Small Business Success Story

America loves coffee.

According to the National Coffee Association, 66% of us drink it every day, and most devoted coffee drinkers consume multiple cups per day.

So, when West Michigan natives Sarah Laman-Davis and Arick Davis thought about opening their coffee shop, the Last Mile Café, they knew they had one thing on their side – demand.

But coffee competition is steep. If you drive down any major street in Grand Rapids, it won’t take long before you pass someone filling that need – whether it’s a small café or a big bean company like Starbucks or Tim Hortons.

Adding to that challenge, Sarah and Arick wanted to do something exceptional. They wanted to run a company that reflected their values – putting “people and planet” before profits. Their vision was to pay a living wage to their employees, give 10% of their profits to local charities and serve only ethically-sourced coffee to their customers.

“We definitely heard from some people that our model wasn’t going to work,” Sarah says. “No coffee shop can thrive paying a living wage, they said.” 

The detractors also warned them about the challenges of getting funding. As young professionals, they didn’t have the collateral to qualify for traditional lending.

But Sarah and Arick were undeterred.

They created a business plan that differentiated their coffee shop from the competition and acquired some capital funding, including a $50,000 microloan from Michigan Women Forward. As a CDFI lender, Michigan Women Forward helps entrepreneurs seed and scale their businesses and improve the communities they serve.

In December 2022, Sarah and Arick opened Last Mile Café in an abandoned building that had no water, heat or electricity. 

“We called it ‘Last Mile Cafe’ because we had to go through a lot of hurdles to finally open, and when we did, we felt like we made it that ‘last mile,’” Sarah says. 

Business has been strong, which Sarah attributes to the very thing that many told them would make their business impossible – a high quality product and uncompromised dedication to their values. This commitment even earned them a coveted B-Corp Certification, which is awarded to businesses that meet high standards related to living wages, charitable giving, supply chain practices and community engagement. 

Here are some other secrets of their success and lessons they’ve learned along the way:

1. Tap into resources like Michigan Women Forward CDFI funding and support

“We didn’t have any banks that were particularly enthusiastic about what we looked like on paper,” Sarah says. So, the duo had to consider alternative funding sources. Sarah says she got input from the community around her and tapped into their suggestions for raising capital. “You really need to find out what’s out there. You don’t know until you know. But ask.”

That path led Sarah and Arick to Michigan Women Forward to apply for a $50,000 CDFI microloan. Arick says that the team at Michigan Women Forward really helped during the application process. “There’s a lot of guesswork when you haven’t done it before. It was helpful to have MWF team members to review and make suggestions for our financial paperwork.”

2. Use your business capital wisely

A big portion of their loan was used to purchase and install a coffee roaster, and train their staff on how to use it. “That has been HUGE for allowing us to have more control over our product,” Sarah says. It’s meant fresher coffee, an interactive space where customers can watch them roast coffee on site, and it’s helped to lower the cost of their goods.

“Michigan Women Forward really was integral to taking us to the next step in our business plan,” Sarah says.

3. Differentiate and diversify your business

Sure, Last Mile Cafe serves hot and cold beverages like Cappuccino, Cinnamon Plum Tea and Hot Cocoa, but it’s also teamed up with another business, Rise Bakery, to offer treats like granola and cookie bars. And a big push for the business is selling bags of premium coffee customers can take home to brew at home. They have also partnered with some local grocery store chains to sell their bagged beans.

4. Tap into your talents

Both Sarah and Arick have a background in nonprofits, so running a for-profit business was definitely a pivot. But they still brought some essential skills to the table. Sarah tapped into her marketing prowess and Arick brought operational insights.

5. Be prepared for those ‘oh, no!’ moments

Sarah says they have learned a lot about financials and operations since they opened Last Mile Cafe in late 2022. Running a business can have ups and downs – and unexpected surprises. “The key to responding to those ‘Oh, no!’ moments is to be data-driven in making decisions,” Sarah says. “It can take a while to have a handle on the data, but it’s important. We are leaders for a team now. We need to be prepared.”

6. Trust your gut

“As a woman, you get a lot of unsolicited advice. A lot of people come with some paternal energy to tell you everything you need to know about your business,” Sarah says. But, in the end, “trust your gut.” “Yes, be open and willing to learn,” Sarah says. “But it’s your business and no one knows it better than you, so do what makes sense to you.” 

Are you a small business in need of capital to grow your business dream? We are here to help!

Find out more about the small business loans available through Michigan Women Forward.