by TaLeiza Calloway
It’s hard for Jeff Engholm to imagine St. Joseph without the Local Blend. He doesn’t feel this way because he’s co-owner of the coffee shop and wine bar. He was a customer first and it’s simply always been there.
Before Engholm and his wife, Stacie, took ownership of the business years ago, he would frequent the business as a customer while working as an audio engineer for Rockhouse Productions, the coffee shop’s next door neighbor. It was routine for him to stop by and grab a cup of coffee from what was then called “The Meeting Grounds.”
In the last five years, the town hub houses much more than coffee, and plans are to keep growing. This year marks the fifth year the Local Blend has been in business.
“Earth Day is our birthday,” Engholm said with a smile. “April 22, 2008.”
Those five years have been memorable, and he’s looking forward to the next five.
Engholm is a music teacher at St. John’s Preparatory School in Collegeville. Stacie serves as the general manager of the business. They live right above the Local Blend. To say it’s their home reiterates the true meaning of a family business.
Engholm is also a musician so adding a musical element to the establishment was one of the first things he wanted to do when he and his wife gained the business.
They have an open mic night every Tuesday and several musical performances throughout the year, including live music every Friday. One recent addition was hosting a Songwriters Weekend for local artists.
The Meeting Grounds opened in the early 90s. The St. Joseph location was one of the first stores to open. Before the Engholms took over, the coffee shop was a little smaller in terms of volume and was privately owned. The owners, who consisted of a group of couples, were interested in selling the business and eventually approached Jeff and Stacie about the opportunity.
The owners before them changed the business name to “The Local Blend.”
“It was an offer we couldn’t refuse,” he said. “We figured they had just changed (the name) a year before we bought it and it worked. So, why change it?”
The name reflects the vibe of the business’ atmosphere. Whether it’s a family stopping in for dinner or students gathering to study, there’s a blend of interaction that takes place at 19 W. Minnesota St.
Some of the most notable changes in the last five years include the addition of music, building a new stage and installing a sound system. Music offerings went from occasional events to a more regular occurrence.
“We have a regular schedule of music and an open mic,” he said. “Being a musician myself, I wish I would’ve had a space in my early days to explore and experiment. I thought it was a good fit and it turned out to be.”
Songwriters Adam Hammer and Dave Cofell spearhead the open mic and keep it going. He’s grateful for their help.
“One of the best things that happened to this place was these two,” he said.
Other changes include modifications to the food department. Customers can not only grab a coffee or hot chocolate but dinner and desserts.
Within the first year, Stacie led the building of a bakery in the back of the business and expanded the food menu, improving the ingredients. When the business started, there wasn’t much of a lunch crowd. That is no longer the case and quality products are key.
“That was always a priority for us to use top-quality everything and be as local and organic as we possibly could,” he said. “That was important to us.”
As the business continues to grow, space is a constant issue. The next step is deciding what to do to address the increase in service.
“There’s two ways we could keep growing,” he said. “We could expand our seating or we could expand the catering and bakery end of things and become more of a delivery bakery.”
The vision they had years ago is always changing but is coming to fruition. They’ve gotten away from hiring part-time employees and instead have invested in staff training to make sure everyone can do everything. Whether it’s making sandwiches or preparing beverages, all hands know the operations of the business.
The Local Blend has 13 employees. That includes two full-time bakers and the rest make up the barista crew. There are six full-time employees. In the past year they’ve created a management structure.
Vahna Ahlbrecht lives just blocks away from the St. Joseph business. The 23-year-old has worked as a barista for the Local Blend for three years.
“I love my job,” Ahlbrecht said. “I love the regulars. The business is fitting for St. Joseph.”
When you walk into the Local Blend, you’ll see that it’s an informal place where one can be comfortable. That’s the vibe the owners are going for.
“It’s kind of a community center,” Engholm said. “A lot of business deals get done here, grades entered and student meetings.”
People like that the baristas on staff know the customers and what they’re going to order.
“You’ve got to make everybody feel like they’re a part of the community,” Engholm said.
In the next five years, Engholm said he’d like to see the bakery do more and tackle space needs. The city has been supportive of the business and he hopes that support continues in the future. Looking back, he’s pleased with how far the business has come.
“It grows and grows. We had four years of just unbelievable growth,” Engholm said. “We were growing 25 percent annually in terms of volume. It’s coming along. It’s a long-term investment.”