With its Roaring 20s, “Great Gatsby” theme and cozy atmosphere, Café Rhema has become more than a Downtown coffee shop to its patrons. It’s not only a place to relax and enjoy a really good cup of coffee and some high-quality food, it’s a place to meet, study and socialize in a warm, safe environment. Josh Spencer, owner of another Downtown business, The Spencer Agency, was born and raised in Flint and attended the University of Michigan-Flint. Three years ago, he purchased what was then the Brown Sugar Café, in order to be part of the Downtown revitalization efforts … and because he loves Flint.
After purchasing the shop, Spencer toured around the country visiting other coffee shops in search of ideas. “My goal was to have a high-caliber coffee shop unique to Downtown,” he says. He visited hundreds of shops in cities like Austin, TX; Chicago and Seattle. “It was the best way to research and see what other shops were doing,” Spencer explains. “We took the best elements and used those ideas to create our own.”
Café Rhema is a warm and inviting place with comfortable, Victorian-style furniture, and music from the 1920s playing softly in the background. “I want people to feel like they’ve stepped back in time,” says the owner. Spencer decorated the café with locally-found antiques, such as the crystal chandelier that he found at the Carriage Town Antique Center. “I wanted things that were local and would give the shop a sense of Flint history,” he adds. A picture of GM Founder, Billy Durant with
his dog and another of Charles Stewart Mott are examples of the historical décor.
The biggest draw of Café Rhema is the high-quality coffee, being one of only a few mid-Michigan “third wave” coffee shops. Third wave coffee is a movement to produce high-quality coffee that involves improvements at all stages of production – from plant growing, harvesting and processing, to stronger relationships between growers, traders and roasters. “We know our roasters personally,” Spencer reports, adding that that he does business with local roasters in Goodrich and Detroit. “Coffee-roasting has become an art form,” he notes.
Spencer has traveled to various countries to see where the coffee is grown. “We also have a personal relationship with our growers,” he says. “To know that it’s grown correctly and ethically sourced is huge for us.”
Tiff Sommers, Manager, handles all of the ordering and oversees the eight-member staff. On the menu are various coffees, lattes, espresso, cappuccinos, French press coffee, Italian sodas, smoothies, and bubble tea – a fun and delicious drink with tapioca pearls in it. “We also make our own chai latte that is very good,” Tiff says. Artisan sandwiches, pastries and waffles are also on the menu. The house-made sweet and savory waffles are customer favorites. “We serve waffles all day and they go great with coffee,” she adds. Delicious flatbreads (Thai Peanut, Zesty Chicken and Chicken Pesto) are quite popular, as well as healthy, made-to-order salads served with house-made dressing.
It is important that the food served at Café Rhema comes from local suppliers. The bagels are from Big Apple Bagels in Davison and the pastries and breads are baked by Crust in Fenton. Chicken and much of their produce are supplied by the Flint Farmers’ Market.
I wanted to offer an alcohol-free getaway for people of all ages.
A room in the back of the café seats up to 50 people and is available to rent for events such as business meetings and bridal and baby showers. “We actually had a wedding here out front!” Tiff exclaims. “And multiple first dates and proposals.” A room with a lighted platform is also used for performances like concerts, game nights and karaoke – all in a comfortable, alcohol-free atmosphere.
As a Christian, Spencer thought it was important to provide a social hangout for young adults and people of all ages. “I wanted to offer a place for people to meet that wasn’t a bar – an alcohol-free getaway for people of all ages,” he shares. A worship leader comes in every Wednesday from noon to 2pm. In the back of the café is a prayer box that collects about 100 prayer requests a week.
Tiff, who moved from Ohio to Flint, felt as if she was destined to work at Café Rhema. She first came to Flint on a church mission, which was when she first met Spencer. “I fell in love with Flint,” Tiff says. “I knew something good was happening here and had a feeling I’d end up back here.” When she found out Spencer had purchased a coffee shop, she was happy to take a job there. “I love it here and I love coffee!” exclaims the manager. “I’m now what you would call a ‘coffee snob’ and we have created a bunch of coffee snobs at Café Rhema.”
The word rhema is Greek and means “utterance” or “thing said,” a word that refers to the action of conversation (in Christianity, it means “the words of Jesus”). “That’s what you’ll find at Café Rhema,” Spencer says. “Really good conversation, people who love you, and really, really good coffee.”
Photography by Eric Dutro