When looking to start their new coffee business two decades ago, Paul and Cyndi Demaree had a unified vision of what they wanted it to be.
“We wanted a community gathering place,” Cyndi said. “We wanted it to be part of a neighborhood, and we wanted the business to be centered around coffee.”
“In our heads we wanted it to be a place where all ages, all colors, all religions, Democrat, Republican could come,” Paul said. “We wanted to them to talk about something other than ideology and share common ideas over a cup of coffee.”
They also knew they wanted it to be in their own neighborhood and loved the idea of being on North Anthony.
Taking the Plunge
At the time they were looking, there were two places available near the corner of North Anthony and St. Joe River Drive — one was on the east side of the street, the other on the west side. Paul parked his car in one of the area parking lots and did his own calculations.
“I sat there near that intersection and started counting cars. I thought, ‘If one car out of every 100 stopped in to spend three dollars on a cup of coffee, could we stay open?’”
Ultimately they opted to take the plunge and chose the building on the west side where trees provided shade and a bit of beauty. But there were still obstacles. The streets and sidewalks were in disrepair, and there was no plan in place at the time to fix them. Even more challenging was their lack of funding. And experience.
“We hadn’t done this before,” Paul said. “And nobody wanted to give us a loan, and we didn’t have the money.”
It was in this defining moment that this family business, the Firefly, really demonstrated how strong the family ties were and how crucial they were to the future success of the business. Paul’s sister, Kristen Demaree, who did have experience in the coffee business, helped them in the first 18 months, showing them the ropes and getting them established.
“She came to help out, and I don’t know what we’d have done without her,” Cyndi said. “She spent a year and a half here, and she helped us to get the equipment and helped us to find a coffee roaster in Colorado, which is where we’re from. I was working at the time, and our daughters were helping out. Allison was 17 at the time, and Abbi was 14. Paul’s background is in construction, so he found some castoff pieces and built the arches in here. We brought in a local artist, Dave Birkey, to do the indoor murals.”
But even with all of that help, little prepared them for what happened when they opened their doors on June 29, 1999.
“We had overhired,” Cyndi said. “We expected this mass influx of customers, and we took in $200. We had to let everybody go except for family, and I cried.”
Slow but sure success
Still, slowly but surely they began to build a loyal group of customers, many of whom stopped in every day. They started bringing in music and hosting an open mic night, and they stayed open until late into the evening becoming one of the favorite — and only — all-ages gathering spots in the neighborhood. Close to the PFW campus, Concordia Lutheran High School, and Zollner Stadium, the business continued to draw in regulars.
“There wasn’t a lot of nightlife around then,” daughter Allison Demaree-Coale said. “I was a teenager, and everyone wanted to hang out here.”
Then, when the recession hit in 2008, they felt the bottom start to fall out. They began closing earlier, at 8 p.m. instead of 10 or 11, which eliminated the music and performance element that typically took place in those later hours. Paul likens the business to farmers who have good years and bad years but keep on pushing forward.
He also came up with some ideas for bringing in new customers.
“It was Paul’s idea to put in that arts and crafts wall,” Cyndi said. “It gave some space to local artists to put their work out. But it also brought in family and friends of the artists, people who hadn’t been there before. We started brainstorming ways like that so that we could weather the economy.”
Remarkably, not only did the Firefly survive, but so did Old Crown Coffee Roasters which has coexisted on North Anthony throughout the recession, bringing more business to the neighborhood together instead of as competing factions.
“I think being so close together has been good for both of our businesses,” said Allison, who, after leaving the business for a time is back full-time and has helped boost their presence on social media. She was also there to help last year when they renovated their kitchen, where they make the breads, soups, salads, homemade sausages and deli meats, and other treats that have become as popular as their coffee beverages.
Celebrating their 20th anniversary
That kitchen will play a big part in producing an international menu that will help them celebrate their 20th anniversary on June 29. There will also be music and plenty of grateful celebration from 11 a.m. until 3 p.m.
There is also a funding effort afoot to help pay for lights to make the beautiful murals that now surround their building visible 24 hours a day.
The Demarees enjoy the warm relationship they’ve come to share with their customers, and just as their own daughters have grown up at the Firefly, so have they seen young kids now grown bringing in kids of their own.
They embrace their neighborhood and root for the success of all businesses in neighborhoods around the city. The Firefly is more than the Demaree family. It’s a larger family of people who walk through their door day in, day out.
“Our philosophy, our belief, is that healthy cities require healthy neighborhoods,” Paul said. “We need gathering places, cafes, and places where people can meet and talk. Have a drink, talk to different people. We hope our future holds more of the same. “
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