Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea: Where stories begin and end

A view from the corner table in Kerrytown's Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea.

It’s more than the coffee.

For her, Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea is peace. A break, the length it takes for a cigarette to burn down to her silver holder. On the patio facing North Fifth Avenue—its cobblestone caulked by weeds—her eyes slide over to the backside of Community High. The afternoon haze cottons the sun, but she’s in sunglasses and a gauzy blouse. Sun-stained and wizened, she is Sweetwaters’ own version of Bette Davis. This veteran Floridian, a woman who drinks mid-afternoon cocktails in her ranch’s solarium, comes here for solace.

Bette idly puts her holder to her lips but doesn’t draw. Here, in front of the Sweetwaters in Kerrytown, she reflects, seeking respite in the time it takes to finish a cappuccino.

“People come in here for so many different reasons,” said Lisa Bee, co-owner of Sweetwaters. “We notice a lot of people who build relationships and people who have built Sweetwaters into their routines.”

In 1993, Bee and her husband, Wei, opened the first Sweetwaters in downtown Ann Arbor. Since then, they have added two more locations—one in 2005 in Kerrytown Market and last year on Plymouth Road—to keep up with their customers’ demand.

And, what we demand is good coffee. We demand a place that begins and ends our stories.

The Bees have accommodated and it’s the reason they are in the business. It’s the reason they have triumphed over the competition; this isn’t just a Starbucks. French Vietnamese au laits and rugelogs, which are chocolate and fruit-filled spins on the Hanukkah rugelach. Empress Flower tea, a Sweetwaters original that mixes jasmine with chrysanthemum, and chocolate croissants: this is food we can sit down to.

Today, we are a society on the move, one that’s conversely connected—connected to the Web, to iPods and iPads—yet disconnected. Sweetwaters brings us back home, back to people, good food and scrubbed tables. That’s where our stories come from.

“A lot of things have happened, here, that people want to share with us,” said Bee. Things like writing books, meeting with friends and colleagues, and beginning a romance. “We just provide the space.”

This space is Ann Arbor’s Roman forum. It’s a space for new relationships.

The sound of froth mechanically punching scalding coffee behind the Kerrytown counter momentarily jars the young man. He’s already finished with his Dragon Eye. Her hand is upturned, poised next to her mug of now lukewarm oolong tea. He sips from an empty cup, and she knows it; she hears the empty plastic echo off of the table. They look at each other and realize that this is it. This is their start, at a two-seater next to the window.

They are here—along with Bette, graduate students, moms with Bugaboo strollers, and businessmen with a caffeine fix—in a café that begs the frank and forward exchange of ideas. Folks who don’t work together now drink together. Talk together. And, for those with only a laptop, book or cigarette holder for company, this becomes a place to ruminate.

Sweetwaters is John Locke’s blank slate—a coffee and table, and nothing else. That’s how the Bees want it. That’s how we want it.

Bette crushes the butt into her croissant crumbs, and leaves. She’ll be back tomorrow.

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