Leaps of Faith - Tales of Local Businesses

By Mary Runser | Photography by Susan Ayer


Cultivate Coffee and Tap House

Cultivate Coffee and Tap House is trying something a little different from the other coffee shops and bars in the Ypsilanti/Ann Arbor area — first, they’re bringing craft beer and excellent coffee together under one roof, and second, they’re running as a nonprofit business, so all proceeds can go toward causes they’re passionate about. The core team behind this model consists of Billy Kangas and Ryan and Bekah Wallace, husband and wife. Ryan and Rebecca are both from western Michigan but have now lived in Washtenaw County for several years. Kangas, who grew up in the Ypsilanti/Pittsfield Township area, pursued higher education in Chicago and Washington D.C. before returning to the area in late 2014. “It’s good to be back home,” he said.

After graduating from Huron High School, Kangas dug deep into religion, earning a B.A. in religious studies and a master’s degree in divinity. He also completed coursework toward a Ph.D. in liturgy and sacramental theology. While pursuing his degrees, he gained related experience working in churches and for Bread for the World, — an anti-hunger advocacy group in Washington D.C. He also held jobs not directly related to his studies. “I did a lot of shifts in coffee shops, which was where I developed my passion for coffee. It was there that I started trying to figure out what it meant to get to know community, to be involved in the daily lives of your neighbors in this 21st-century context…. I fell in love with getting to know people, and the beverage part of it kind of fell in line as well,” he said.  

After completing a year-long fellowship with Bread for the World, Kangas moved back to Ypsilanti. He continued his involvement in the church, which is where he met Ryan and Bekah Wallace, eventually joining his interest in coffee with Ryan’s interest in beer. “I get passionate about things. If I’m going to serve coffee, I’m going to serve the best coffee,” Kangas said. “So, I devoted myself to learning everything there is to know about coffee, and Ryan, similarly, devoted himself to learning everything there is to know about beer, and now we learn from each other.” The coffee-beer pairing would become a large part of what Cultivate is about, with Kangas’ desire to build and serve community forming the business’s central mission. 

Cultivate Coffee and Tap House opened in October 2015. It is rooted in three different values: Craft, Community, and Cause. “We want coffee, beer, and tea — our crafts — to be the best possible. We want this space and our values to be oriented around community, first by putting people and our values at the top. We’ve tried to create a space that’s open for people to use and encourages getting to know one another,” Kangas explained. “And the third value is cause; all of our profits go toward ending hunger. It’s my life passion, addressing hunger.” Kangas also said that Cultivate aligns itself with the United Nations’ goal to end systemic hunger by 2030 [www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/hunger/]. “[We are] trying to see what that looks like in our community, develop a plan … and to partner with those who are working on a global and national scale to help be a voice in the movement to end hunger.”

As a nonprofit business, to be sustainable, Cultivate is always looking for new ways to grow and better serve their values. Volunteer hours are an important aspect of the business, and they have more than 100 volunteers, with some helping just at a particular event and others working shifts every week. In addition to volunteers, there are also two part-time and two full-time employees. Cultivate also partners with Growing Hope and Food Gatherers to maintain a donation garden in the back of the building, where fresh produce is grown for the community. The donation garden is run 100-percent by volunteers. 

Kangas hasn’t had any difficulties finding volunteers, so far, and he enjoys sharing his coffee knowledge with those who want to learn the art and craft of coffee brewing. “This has actually become the clubhouse for coffee nerds,” he said. “We have weekly events like ‘coffee cuppings’ where we’re teaching people how to taste coffee in a very intentional way. We’ve offered other classes on coffee tasting and brewing … and will offer more classes in the future.” Cultivate also conducts beer and tea tastings. Recently, they hosted a southeast-Michigan-wide coffee showcase, with all the proceeds benefitting Food 4 Farmers, an organization aiming to target hunger in coffee-growing families and communities in Latin American countries. “Coffee farmers are often some of the most food-insecure people in the world, so we’re very passionate as a coffee shop to make sure that we’re addressing that issue as well,” Kangas said. 

Kangas brings his religious training into the coffee shop with him every day. “During my studies in religion, I thought that I had the gift to be a pastor, and so that’s kind-of how I see myself in this setting. I’m not here to bring a sermon, but rather to treat each person who walks through the door with dignity, and to spend time with them as I’m brewing their drink of choice. I’m here to offer direction, whether that is spiritual or simply ‘caffeination,’ to those who need it,” he said. Kangas’ mentality is shared among the other employees and volunteers at Cultivate, who aim to treat each person they serve with dignity and understand that each person has a story worth sharing.

Those seem like steep standards for a coffee shop, but once you visit Cultivate, you quickly realize that it’s more than a simple coffee shop. It is dedicated not only to serving the Ypsilanti community but also to serving causes on a global scale, such as the fight to end hunger (all profits are invested into Cultivate’s “cause areas,” which are listed on their website). But don’t take my word for it; visit the shop for yourself and see if it will become your new favorite coffee/tea/beer/community/education connection.


Thistle & Bess

Diana Marsh derives inspiration from her past — her recent past as well as her ancestral history — when it comes to her new shop, Thistle & Bess, and there’s no apparent shortage of style, charm, or flair in this new Kerrytown storefront. Originally from Belleville, Michigan, Marsh moved to New York after graduating from U-M and worked as a teacher for 11 years. She started Thistle & Bess in Brooklyn as an antique and vintage jewelry line before moving back to Ann Arbor and opening a full-fledged storefront. Thistle & Bess, now a complete home and lifestyle shop, offers a unique and innovative collection of antiques, vintage items, art pieces, trinkets, and more. The style has hints of Brooklyn, as well as Marsh’s Scottish and English heritage (the name of the store was inspired by the emblem of Scotland, the thistle, and the nickname of Queen Elizabeth I, “Good Queen Bess”). 

After graduating from high school, Marsh (who is now 34) moved to Ann Arbor to attend U-M and earn her bachelor’s degree in education. While attending the university, Marsh worked as a docent at the Natural History Museum and realized that she loved working with children. She enjoyed their unpredictable and fun nature, and was certain she would find teaching exciting. Upon graduating in 2004, she moved to New York and taught in the public school system for the next 11 years. “I’m so glad I did it,” Marsh said. “Eleven years is a long time to spend in the public school system in New York, and I met fabulous people and I loved working with the kids. The political nature of the school system, in the end, became a little too much for me to handle. So, it was time to move on. But I’m so glad I did it, and I value that time and experience so much.”  
After finishing the 2015 school year in June, Marsh moved back to the Ann Arbor area two days later, and opened Thistle & Bess two weeks after that. Going from public school teacher to retail business owner might seem like a big leap, but Marsh said it was her dream. “I’ve always wanted to do this,” she said. “I’ve always been into design and fashion. Living in New York, I was always excited to see new stores and boutiques popping up in my neighborhood. And this idea was just always in the back of my head …” She began selling vintage and antique jewelry online through Etsy while she was still teaching. (Etsy is an e-commerce website focused on handmade and vintage items.) During the holidays, Marsh would create small holiday collections on Etsy, and the idea for Thistle & Bess just continued to bloom from there. 

While home last Christmas, Marsh was having dinner with some friends and walked by the vacant storefront in Kerrytown. Her friends kind-of joked about this being the space for her store, but the following morning, Marsh went back to the storefront, called the landlord, and arranged for a time to meet and discuss a possible lease. “I think it was the location that actually pushed me forward. Out of curiosity, I’d been looking at real estate in the Ann Arbor area — looking for locations, sizes, and prices, for my store,” Marsh explained. This particular location met all of her criteria.

Marsh signed the lease for the store in February and began renovations immediately, just finishing them the day before the store opened. A new floor, ceiling, window, and door were all part of the plan, as well as removing all the kitchen equipment left over from the last tenant. All of the renovations were done while Marsh was away teaching in New York. “It was a stressful situation, but it turned out perfectly. I couldn’t have wished for anything more.”

Thistle & Bess opened in July 2015 to the excitement and bustle of downtown Ann Arbor during Art Fair. “It was fun to open during all that excitement,” Marsh said. “And it was wonderful to meet the neighbors who’d been watching the transformation and wondering who would be next door for all those months.” The objects at the shop add up to a quirky yet refined aesthetic and a distinctive brand. “There’s definitely a nod to the vintage in almost everything that we carry. Even if the piece isn’t actually vintage, it’s at least vintage-inspired,” Marsh said. She’s also always had a love for history, especially Scottish and English, since they are part of her heritage. A bit of Europe can be felt throughout the store, amid homegrown pieces purchased from a few small, independent Brooklyn brands. When opening the store, Marsh purchased pieces she hadn’t yet seen in the Ann Arbor area, and she continues to make this a part of her process — looking at what is already available in the area and keeping an eye out for those unique pieces that have not yet made it here. 

Finding the right pieces and objects for the store is the easy part, according to Marsh. “That’s not difficult at all! I read a lot of blogs and magazines. I go to a lot of different shops that inspire me and try to pick out things that I like, and cross my fingers and hope that everybody else likes it as well.” 

So far, things have been working out well for Marsh. “We’ve gotten to know the neighbors,” she said. “We all help each other out as best we can, in whatever ways we can. And we had a really good holiday season. It was really jam-packed in here. It was better than I had expected.” At the time I met with Marsh, she said the shop was a little low on inventory. “But, that’s a good problem. It means we sold a lot, and now I can do some more research and begin looking to bring some new things into the store.”

Marsh’s goal is to offer her customers fresh and exciting products that are unique in artistry and quality, rather than the standard products offered in chain stores. Whether you’re looking for a terrarium, vintage barware, picture frames, or perhaps a vintage Edward VII charm chain with photos of the Royal Family, Thistle & Bess may well be just the place for you. Or just stop in to browse the shelves and get a fresh perspective on home décor or gift giving. (Then give Pippa and Arthur, Marsh’s two dogs, a pet while you’re there. They’ll return the gesture with a happy and playful tail wag).


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