Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea is coming to The Grove this October, with local owners Jason and Leah Rooney poised to introduce a the first of the premium-targeted and family-friendly coffee franchise to the St. Louis market. I had the pleasure of meeting Jason for a pre-opening tour of the facility and was given a rundown of all the intricacies of opening a new coffee shop in the middle of the pandemic.
Sweetwaters Coffee and Tea was founded in 1993 in Ann Arbor, near the University of Michigan campus. With a focus on high-end, real ingredients and a love for coffee, co-founders Wei and Lisa now run several corporate locations, and together with locally owned franchises, the Sweetwaters brand can be found at 45 locations. Rooney hopes to expand on their success with what he intends to be the flagship Sweetwaters location in St. Louis, located in the “Heart of The Grove” on Manchester.
It is a strikingly challenging and complicated time to be a small business owner in the food and beverage industry, but Rooney intends to offer a unique set of drinks and activities in an accessible setting to a neighborhood with relatively little competition. The only other coffee shop in the vicinity is Rise Coffee, which Rooney himself praises. Rise offers more of an eclectic style, while Rooney intends for Sweetwaters to have a broader audience and a host of beverage options that will be new to the region.
Jason and Leah are aiming to open Sweetwaters within the first two weeks of October, first for a “Friends and Family Celebration” to give the staff a chance to practice for a four hour setting before opening to the public. A sizable portion of those proceeds will benefit charitable organizations.
Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea is very community oriented as far as charities and integrating with the community, being there for lots of local events.Jason Rooney
There is a lot of opportunity and energy that Leah and Jason intend to capitalize on in the neighborhood. With a fresh and modern space in the Chomra luxury apartment community, Sweetwaters will capitalize on its storefront to create a “third space” for a recent and continued influx of nearby residents. Jason emphasized a desire to not just serve the local community, but also the greater St. Louis region, an ambitious task for any small business. Their physical space will be a platform not just for local community events, but for community non-profits and charities that need a retail partner. Jason, who grew up in St. Louis, decided with Leah that St. Louis was the best city to raise their family of four children and start their business, specifically choosing a Sweetwaters franchise because its mission relates to their own and expresses the values and importance of charitable impact they hold.
With only a few weeks left until their opening, the staff is working hard to prepare for the “Friends and Family Celebration”, the very first time that the shop will open its doors to members of the public. The celebration will be the official start of a Grand Opening week, taking lessons from their day of practice and then opening to the public with a special promotion each day to build excitement and ensure people try their more unique and different beverages.
It took a long time to get to this stage, however. The Rooney’s first intended to open Sweetwaters in March, but ended up pushing back their opening just as COVID-19 began to spread. While the virus was not the only factor in the delay, the time ended up helping the staff prepare and plan. The delay was a positive, but added to an already long process. Jason and Leah valued taking their time and getting things right, even charting their own path patiently as they looked for the perfect space for their coffee shop. When they first began looking for a space, their real estate broker found plenty of adequate locations, ones with drive-throughs, others in the suburbs, and some even Downtown, but nothing felt right. They ended up doing their own research, ultimately finding this location in The Grove themselves. They knew almost immediately that this space, in the “heart of The Grove” and in a contemporary, dense development, fit every criteria. It would not only fit the store, but the brand itself and their many ambitions for how they would serve the neighborhood.
We probably couldn’t have written a better location and a better fit for what the brand is.”Jason Rooney
Picking The Grove and Chroma in particular made sense to the Rooney’s. With 235 units in the first phase of the development alone, Hue opening this fall with more than a hundred more, and 4400 Manchester opening shortly, there has been an influx of dense residential units in the neighborhood. These developments are just the tip of the iceberg with more along the way. Rooney hopes that Sweetwaters will complement Rise and help serve a growing, diverse demographic in the community.
There were so many neighborhoods Jason and Leah considered, from Maplewood to University City, but the density, walkability, and competitive landscape of The Grove were deciding factors. The encouragement and support of the neighborhood and building sealed the deal. This particular location offered a contemporary storefront that they felt would fit their premium brand well and would provide the best experience for nearby residents.
One of the more interesting final candidates for locations was a retail spot, now to be occupied by a Starbucks, in the newest Ballpark Village phase. They loved the new buildings, but felt that the stronger residential aspect of Forest Park Southeast and The Grove would contribute to a more stable business environment not dependent on a game day crowd. They would love to support Downtown St. Louis, but this problem emphasizes the type of issues Downtown, even as it sees a growing residential population, faces. St. Louis, with its fragmented neighborhoods, still has much to do to make its downtown attractive to families and businesses. It’s impossible to deny the progress it has made so far, however.
The support from the building management in Chroma has been outstanding, and Jason is grateful for the support from the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association. Residents have also provided incredible support and interest, fielding constant questions to their social accounts.
We are here to serve the community and give them a product they love and enjoy. We think this will enhance the neighborhood.Jason Rooney
Meeting their expectations is paramount to the Rooneys. Opening a business during COVID, particularly one in the food-service industry, is complicated. The Rooney’s want to ensure everyone is safe and feels safe and will emphasize and abide by all city and CDC guidelines. They do not want anyone catching anything because they missed something. When things begin opening up and getting safer, they hope to fully realize a coffee concept built with events in mind.
From Friday Game Nights to live music to adult coloring evenings, etc., they hope to hold all sorts of events for community members. COVID unfortunately changes the equation a bit, but they hope to eventually implement these events at a large scale and then some to make Sweetwaters an event space that contributes to an active, social lifestyle for those in the neighborhood and beyond. Jason hopes to incorporate some events sooner, but does not yet know exactly what those will look like.
Jason is looking forward to winning people over and building brand awareness for Sweetwaters. In his mind, this is really the first and most important step. Sweetwaters has a number of proprietary drinks and blends that you can’t find elsewhere. You cannot even buy Sweetwaters blended coffee offered at any other coffee shop. One of Jason’s favorites is a special Ginger Lemon Tea, which complements their soda-like Ginger Lemon Fizz. That have that bottled now, in regular and raspberry flavors. The Ginger Fizz can be served hot, which apparently not only tastes great, but can be helpful when you have a cold.
They also have a couple of different frozen drinks, like the ice cream based cold brew based on Hawaiian coffee blends and Hawaiian coffee culture. Jason stands by it, proudly claiming that it is the best frozen drink he has had in his life. They also have Strawberry Lemonade and regular Lemonade freezes. These too use fresh berries and real ingredients. The Lemonade comes from lemons and actual lemon juice. Similarly, there is no strawberry syrup or juice – just strawberries.
While there are many coffee shops and chains around St. Louis, this is a opening that I find truly interesting. It is not every day that a new chain starts up in the city, in particular one that offers something different. It also highlights the development and continued economic successes of neighborhoods in the Central Corridor and The Grove in particular, with the influx of residents and large residential complexes fueling small businesses. More than anything, it is refreshing to hear the passion of a local business owner who loves and sees value in St. Louis, and who plans to use his business as a platform to make peoples’ lives better.
Stay tuned for details on their Grand Opening as October gets closer! In the meantime, you can follow their social accounts here: