Episode 38: Lisa Bee, BA ’90 – “Coffee, COVID, and a course correction”
Hi, this is Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today. I bring you this episode of “Listen in, Michigan” from my closet at home – well, just this intro part. Working from home and all that. My guest in this episode is Lisa Bee, co-owner of Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea, founded in Ann Arbor in 1993.
Lisa and her husband/business partner Wei met as LSA students; they both graduated in 1990. I was inspired to interview Lisa after meeting the Bees outside the renovated Michigan Union just a few days before it opened to the public. When they told me they owned Sweetwaters, which ousted Starbucks in the new Union, I was super excited: Local alumni entrepreneurs who just opened a business in their own student union.
It was early March when Lisa and I talked, both of us blissfully unaware of the pandemic about to slam us into this bizarre state we’re all in. The date I had intended to publish this lighthearted profile about a thriving family business landed right around the date the world shut down. It would have been totally weird to hear about the company’s growth with franchises from Tennessee to Texas, the new coffees she was bringing in from China, the low-sugar snack items. It’s an odd experience to hear how jolly and lighthearted we were. We spoke again on the phone, from lockdown, which you’ll hear at the end.
Anyway, I just wanted to give you a heads up. You are about to enter a past time, where you could open the door to a bustling coffee shop, inhale the heady aromas, shout over the grinders, and stand back from the steamers. You could hang with your friends, chat with the owner of Sweetwaters and dig your ginger lemon tea. Come on. Brew a cup. Close your eyes. Here’s Lisa.
Lisa Bee: We have a group of people called the Breakfast Club that has been coming in every single morning for about 27 years. Most of our morning guests are coming in almost every day. So that really is their ritual. They have found friends with other guests, as well as getting to know our staff, and they become connected to certain products and that’s all they order every single time. It’s just how they start their day.
Deborah Holdship: What about you? Do you have a coffee ritual?
Bee: Wow! [laughs] We try not to make coffee and tea at home because we have all these different beautiful stores we can go to.
My husband is the big coffee drinker, and he definitely likes to brew his own coffee, or if he’s going to the café his favorite drink is the Dragon Eye, which is house coffee with a little bit of sweetened, condensed milk. It wasn’t always on the menu, but it was something he drank every morning, and I finally asked him, “What are you drinking? Wow that’s really good!” And we put it on the menu. That’s how it came to be — because of his ritual.
I really love the warmth of all the people in the café and seeing how the café has become a part of everyone’s life. So if you sit there throughout the day, you get to know people’s habits: The mid-day, pick-me-up people, and right after school you see the kids who are super excited to come in for a milkshake. And then of course, nighttime is usually the people who are trying to study and work. Just seeing that mix of people… and there are a lot of people who know each other. It’s a community gathering place. That is really nice. I’ve gotten to know a lot of our guests and I just love to see them.
Holdship: When you guys decided to open a business why did you choose coffee and tea?
Bee: We were in our early to mid 20s when we started, right after college. We grew up in restaurants. I’m from Cleveland. My husband grew up in Saginaw. We were trying to decide what to do after graduation. A full-scale restaurant did not appeal to us. We saw what our parents had gone through. It’s a lot of work, a lot of capital. But as we were finishing school, coffee houses were places we would meet. We thought, this would be fun, working with people our age – at the time [laughs]. It’s coffee and tea, and we realized the types of teas people generally were exposed to were limited compared to the types of tea we were exposed to growing up in Asian culture. Even a lot of our coffees are Asian-inspired and we just wanted to be able to offer more than what was being offered currently. And it offered us a lot of creativity.
Holdship: Where does the name come from?
Bee: Oh. That’s fun. So, in trying to think of a name we started with: What do all the products have in common? Water. What’s a nice adjective? Sweet. So Sweetwaters kind of came about very simply like that. We wanted a name that would also translate in Chinese, and sound nice in both languages.
A lot of people ask about our logo and how that came about. It’s a round red chop. A chop is what you typically see at the bottom of an Asian painting – the artist’s signature. Right before we opened, my husband Wei’s parents were going to China and asked if we wanted anything. We said, “Can you bring us a chop with Sweetwaters on it?”
So, the way you write Sweetwaters in Chinese calligraphy today is not the way it appears in our logo. My parents went to some random person outside their hotel and that person decided to use ancient pictograph lettering. So you see three waves, like how they used to write water. So it’s sweet and waters. One character on top, and one on the bottom. And we have no idea who came up with our logo. Some random person in China.
Holdship: How is it working with your husband all these years?
Bee: I just saw my parents work together and that was just the norm for both of us. In the early days we were constantly working together. Now the business has grown so much we surprisingly don’t see each other as much. I mean, who can you trust more than your spouse? Even our kids have all worked in the business. Not right now, but when they did, also it was great. It gave them a jumpstart; we trusted them as well. Family-owned businesses: I really can’t think of anything different that I’d want.
Holdship: And you have an opportunity for your family business to bring joy to others. It’s almost like you’re constantly throwing a party.
Bee: It’s so much fun. We have guests that come in and ask about our kids, or even, guests that we’ve known since their kids were little and now they’re grown and married. We went out to San Francisco one time and this girl came running up to us to say hi, and we were like, oh my God, this is that little girl whose feet didn’t touch the floor.
Holdship: So obviously you love people.
Bee: We really enjoy it. Every day is different. Every time we go into one of stores, like the Michigan Union . . .
Holdship: Oh my God, I totally forgot. That’s what I wanted to ask you about! Talk about burying the lead. That shop in the Union is so beautiful. You scored.
Bee: Sometimes Wei and I have to pinch ourselves — certainly in the beginning. To think we were students here, sitting in here, and now we have a business there — in the renovated union, right by the atrium. We couldn’t pick a better spot. Our downtown location is a lot of business people. Westgate is families. Nothing like being right in the center of everything where all the students are.
Holdship: I just love the thought of you being students here and now you own a shop here. It’s like time travel almost.
Bee: We had our two older sons come down for the opening. And we took a bunch of pictures. It was just as strange from them too to now be part of the businesses in there. They love it as well.
One of the states we’re most prevalent in is Texas. We’re also in New York and New Jersy, and maybe I should whisper this … we’re also in Ohio.
Holdship: Just make sure all the cups are blue and gold. Bring a little A2 spirit to the rest of the universe.
Bee: We have a lot of people that have that nostalgia. Since we’ve been around so long, tons of students have come here and moved to different places. Occasionally we get emails: “I can’t believe I can get my ginger lemon tea in Iowa.”
Holdship: So what was your favorite spot as a student here?
Bee: Do you remember Drakes?
Holdship: Everybody loves Drake’s.
Bee: I loved getting grilled cheese and tomato soup there. And there was a croissant shop on North U. A fresh croissant would be my treat after Chinese class.
Holdship: Well, it’s funny that you would pick bakeries… You’ve got a place you like to be now. Ideal situation: Start a business that feeds your soul, and it appears you’ve done that.
Bee: We do get the occasional opportunity to enjoy our own business, yes.
Holdship: Wait, we’re not done yet. So, when we met I was taken by Lisa’s pure congeniality. She’s a people person to be sure. So I was a little worried about her, frankly, being in lockdown, missing her regulars. I gave her a quick call to bring the story up to day. Man, how quickly things change.
Bee: You know, it’s weird to walk into our stores. We have shields up, markings on the floor. I hope it’s not the new normal. But we’ll see. It will take time for people to adjust once everything opens up again. I would like our stores to look the same as they did before they closed.
I do go to the stores, and when I see the guests come in, they’re really thankful and happy we are open. It’s a way to get away, escape, get a treat. Just to get out, walk around. People are very thankful that we’ve been open.
We’re generally keeping an eye on the news, the governor’s announcements. Making sure we still stay involved in the community. We’ve reached out to provide beverages to front-line employees, the U-M hospital staff, etc.
When the governor allowed stores to become “patnries” we had some pantry items for sale. As a pantry, we’ve been selling alternative-dairy milk, like almond, soy, and oat milks. We also have toilet paper and paper towels. Very limited, like six or seven items. Kind of like the corner store, with six or seven items. It’s interesting to see all the different ways to provide services and products we never had to think about.
This whole crisis changed some of the projects we had scheduled. We had a mobile app we were working on to launch in June but because of this, we launched much earlier than expected. We added apiece to the mobile app because so many people want to donate and help the community which is really nice. You can donate in increments up to $50. You can donate toward a catering tray/beverage tray for frontline staff. We collect those funds, put something together, and deliver it to the hospital or wherever necessary.
That’s been a really nice way to see the community come together to support us, and the health care workers the frontline workers who are supporting the whole community. That’s a nice thing to see.
And then we’ve had hospital staff come into the café because there are not many places open.
Holdship: And have you heard or seen any of your Breakfast Club people? How are they doing?
Bee: Yeah we have. I was surprised because they are so entrenched in coming in, sitting down, and having conversation. I thought that without our dining area we might not see them. But now they still come in, not as often, but they still come in as part of their morning routine. It’s been really lovely to see them. And we wouldn’t be where we are without them.
Holdship: Well, if nothing else, we certainly are learning a lot of life lessons these days. And one thing that makes these hard times a little easier is a good cup of coffee. So please enjoy your Sweetwaters from a social distance, and we will catch you next time.
I may have to take a little break until we can get back into an actual studio to make a decent-sounding product, so keep an eye on this space for other podcasts produced by my friends at the University of Michigan.
OK, everyone, stay safe, listen to the scientists, and as always, Go Blue!
People who need people
Coffee enthusiasts tend to be ritualists. They favor specific brands, prefer certain mugs, and practice a daily routine that borders on obsession. It’s all about that steaming, aromatic brew.
But it’s about more than that for Lisa Bee, BA ’90, who co-founded Sweetwaters Coffee & Tea with her husband, Wei Bee, BA ’90, in 1993.
“I really love the warmth of all the people in the cafe and seeing how the cafe has become a part of everyone’s life,” Lisa Bee says. “It’s a community gathering place and I’ve gotten to know a lot of our guests over the years. I really love to see them.”
Those customers, including the daily regulars known as “the Breakfast Club,” first appeared at Sweetwaters’ Washington Street flagship store nearly three decades ago. The company’s married entrepreneurs shared a common background in the restaurant business, wanted to work with people their own age, and were not cowed by hard work. They’d patronized coffee houses during their student years and knew they could bring something unique to the market.
“We realized the kinds of teas people were exposed to were limited, compared to what we were used to in Chinese culture,” Bee says. “We are always on the lookout for products from Japan, Korea, Vietnam. A lot of our products are Asian-inspired. It’s offered us a lot of creativity.”
The Sweetwaters menu always has offered low-sugar treats with a real-ingredient focus, she says. “We knew we wanted to have a family and I never wanted to say to my children, ‘You can’t have that.'” Today, the Bees have three sons, two U-M graduates and a teenager they hope will continue the Wolverine run. All three boys have worked in the family business at various points.
Change of plans
Sweetwaters has 29 stores in multiple states from Texas, Tennesse, and the Carolinas to New Jersey, Ohio, and New York. Once, Bee says, she received an email from a customer delighted to order Sweetwaters’ ginger-lemon tea in some faraway state.
“It’s always nice to have a little piece of your college life wherever you are,” she says of her own alumni audience.
The newest cafe recently opened in the renovated Michigan Union in early 2020 — in a space previously “owned” by Starbucks. Winning the contract was a professional thrill, but also a personal one, Bee says.
“Wei and I were students here, sitting right here, and now we have a business here,” she says. “We had our sons come down for the opening. It was just as strange for them too, to be part of the businesses [in the Union]. But they love it.”
The plan was to add 20 more stores by year’s end. But that was pre-COVID-19. Since mid-March, Sweetwaters has temporarily shuttered a number of stores, converting others into takeout locations with limited hours and curbside service. The corporate office remains operational as the company adapts to the new normal, releasing a mobile app to expedite online ordering. The app allows customers to donate funds toward food and beverage trays that support frontline workers in the area.
“It’s been a really nice way to see the community come together to support us and the frontline workers who are supporting the whole community,” Bee says.
For now, she closely follows Gov. Whitmer’s announcements and looks for alternate ways to serve her Sweetwaters family. When possible, the cafes act as small pantries, selling alternate milk products, coffee, loose-leaf tea, toilet paper, and other basic items. Mail-order is doing a robust business; delivery service is on the upswing as well.
“It’s definitely a challenge but entrepreneurs tend to have a fighting spirit,” Bee says.
She looks forward to the day when restrictions are lifted and the Breakfast Club can once again convene in her cafes, showing up like clockwork and engaging in their daily rituals.
Being there for them is her ritual, after all.