CADILLAC — Like many things, the pandemic has slowed the plans of Owl Eye Coffee Roasters owners Aaron and Jin Fekete, but recently an announcement was made that will help bring those plans to fruition.
Late last year, Aaron and Jin were planning on having a cafe opened by spring 2021 and part of the downtown Cadillac storefront. While some work was completed, the cafe is still planned, but on hold.
In November, Aaron said an opportunity presented itself for them to apply for a Michigan Economic Development Corporation grant. The process was quick. From finding out about the grant to writing it and submitting it, Aaron said less than a week passed.
While that process was quick, so was the notification from the state regarding finalists and ultimately which Michigan small businesses would receive the up to $25,000 grant.
Last week, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced the awarding of more than $1 million in grants aimed at supporting small local businesses to create resiliency and strengthen downtowns throughout the state with the MEDC’s Match on Main grant program. This included $25,000 to Owl Eye Coffee Roasters.
“It happened pretty quick and I think the longest part was waiting for the state to decide. It is a reimbursement grant so we have to pay it and we get reimbursed,” Aaron said. “So this could be a little bit slower that way, but (the state) can control it better that way as well.”
MEDC’s Match on Main program provides funding to communities that participate as a select and master level community in the Michigan Main Street program or are a Certified Redevelopment Ready community. The communities who receive the grant funding from the MEDC, in turn, award grants of up to $25,000 to eligible businesses seeking support.
The grants are expected to create or retain 75 full-time and 153 part-time jobs, and the projects are expected to generate a total private investment of more than $1.7 million.
The Match on Main grants may be used by the business for eligible expenses that support technical assistance, interior building renovations, permanent or semi-permanent activation of an outdoor space, permanent or semi-permanent business infrastructure related to COVID-19 recovery efforts, and other working capital needs such as marketing needs and inventory expenses. Additional needs identified by the business and supported by the local community are also considered.
“The Match on Main grants are helping us put small businesses first and build on the 145,000 jobs we added last year by continuing to invest in our communities and main streets across the state,” Whitmer said. “I am so grateful to our hardworking, innovative small business owners who form the backbone of our economy, create jobs, and help countless local communities thrive. We will continue investing in them as we usher in a new era of economic prosperity for Michigan.”
Aaron’s love of coffee has taken him around the world and back again. In 2019, he decided he wanted to set roots in his hometown of Cadillac. His goal was to get Cadillac and its surrounding areas as hooked on coffee as he is. Owl Eye Coffee Roasters, 317 N. Mitchell St., opened in March 2019 with that idea, and it remains part of the business plan.
Since he opened in March 2019, Aaron said the business has grown including his wholesale base, but also the walk-in customers buying bags of freshly roasted coffee beans from locations such as Brazil, Columbia, Mexico, and more.
It is that type of local business and a chance meeting that led to Michigan Sen. Curt Vanderwall, R-Ludington, striking up a relationship with the Feketes.
On Friday, a recent visit to Wexford and Missaukee counties allowed for Vanderwall and the Feketes to meet up for a brief tour of Owl Eye Coffee Roasters. Much like the plans for the cafe’s construction, this meeting was a long time coming that was delayed multiple times by the pandemic.
“We’ve been trying to put this together for a while. No. 1, I like to support new businesses coming into town that are going to offer opportunities,” Vanderwall said. “The biggest part is we look at expansion in today’s times with a pandemic and it’s just fun to see someone that’s putting all their energy into being a local business. We need to support that.”
Vanderwall said he first met Aaron when he was campaigning for his 35th Senate District seat. After the chance encounter and after Aaron and Jin opened up Owl Eye Coffee Roasters in 2019, Vanderwall reached out with two personally written notes.
“It seems like he’s very intentional about reaching out to people, which I think shows a lot of integrity and character of an individual,” Aaron said.
Whether it was Vanderwall’s integrity or his character, he also is a lover of coffee. Although he used to drink pots of lesser coffees in a day, in the past few years he has turned into more of a coffee connoisseur. This includes enjoying freshly roasted beans that he grinds up from various local roasters like Owl Eye.
So when the opportunity came about for him to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Aaron roasts his beans, Vanderwall was like a literal kid in a candy store.
“They just received a state grant and this is going to help them bring their business to the next level. Being downtown is going to be a huge asset and eventually could be a focal point of downtown, which will bring traffic to all businesses,” Vanderwall said. “I’m very excited to be able to see a local person have their dreams come true.”