Z's Divine Espresso Downtown is not a place to snooze. The coffee shop at 10 E. Ninth St. buzzes from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Barista Kate Tucker, a photo-media and French major at Kansas University, loves working here.
"There's never a dull moment," she says, "and I get to meet people from all walks of life."
I ordered hot tea and was pleasantly surprised by Kate's question.
"British or Celtic?"
The certified-organic Irish tea (what else?) was served in a decent-sized Z's ceramic mug, with piping hot water; milk was available on a side counter. I toddled across the bamboo floor to the small sofa tucked in the back corner.
The place is small with a cozy, cosmopolitan feel. There are five specially designed computer workstations built by local woodworker/ artist Chuck Mauk. In addition to small tables and padded chairs, there are three brightly painted metal barstools, but one needs good personal upholstery to sit on them for any length of time. There's outdoor seating where one can observe the bustle of Massachusetts Street from a safe distance. Newspapers, magazines and a small selection of children's books are available. Gentle music plays in the background.
Mid-afternoons are generally quiet, but the place was abuzz with a steady stream of to-go orders during my visits. Kate gave each customer a cheery personal greeting and reassured those at the back of the line they would soon be served. When I complimented her on great customer service skills, she told me friendliness and respect for the individual was a principle embedded in owner Mark Zwahl's philosophy.
I met Mark, a native Kansan, in the parent store at 1800 E. 23rd St. He'd worked in the mental health field for many years, and after a short stint in Seattle, returned to Lawrence in 1998 with plans to open a simple drive-through organic coffee stand in "some parking lot." This didn't materialize, and he turned his sights to "the large horse field" on a corner of Harper Street that had been sold to developers. He acquired a lease and set about designing an environmentally friendly, socially responsible coffee shop.
"I wanted to build on the uniqueness of Lawrence, add value to the community and enhance awareness of the environment," Mark explained.
The store opened in April 2000. Three years later it was certified as an organic roasterie and received a Pollution Prevention Award from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Over 5 tons (annually) of spent coffee grounds and roasting chaff is converted to free fertilizer for local farmers and gardeners. Paper, plastic and glass are recycled. Compact light bulbs, motion-detector sensors and programmable thermostats operate in both stores. A large hand-painted mural, symbolizing the connection between human activity and the environment, covers the ceiling and walls en route to the roasting area. Organic breakfast snacks called Rollumz are available at the east store. These are wheat wraps filled with nut butters, yogurt, granola, dried fruit, nuts and oatmeal.
"We're serious about social responsibility and ethics, passionate about quality products and service, and light-hearted and respectful in our connections with one another," Mark explains.
"Staff operate as a team and know they are part of a bigger picture, and understand a high-quality product needs to be complemented by excellent customer service."
The serious underpinning of the business is balanced by a fun, whimsical approach evidenced in both stores, and in the interactions between staff and customers.
The enlarged logo, "Z's divine," on the overhead canopy invites a further glance to reveal an embedded, fun image (actually it took me several glances to work it out). The clever use of red, gold and blue mimics children's toys. Most of the coffees are named after songs: "Moon River," "Blue Velvet" and "Muffin Man" among others. Coffee sizes are short, tall, big and great big.
Lori Gardner, a full-time mom from Eudora, is a regular customer who frequents both stores.
"The coffee's the best I've found and the only one we drink at home. I try a different drink on each visit, and I've never been disappointed," she said.
Other coffee lovers echoed variations of these comments. The tea is pretty good, too. Both stores are worth checking out.