ANGOLA — With six different cafes scattered across the city, Angola certainly has no shortage when it comes to coffee.
The Starbucks at 2991 Meijer Drive opened back in February, adding a third coffeehouse chain to the city along with the local chains Biggby Coffee and Five Lakes Coffee.
While such well-known names may please people who were hoping for Angola locations, it does invoke some curiosity concerning the three cafes that are specific to the area—Cahoots Coffee Cafe, Caleo Cafe and Amanda Lee Coffee.
With a big-time name like Starbucks coming to town, especially during a pandemic, many would think that the small local cafes would be in ruthless competition with each other to keep customers. Right?
In spite of the pressure from three other coffeehouse chains, in spite of an oppressive pandemic and in spite of the expectation of competition, Angola’s three local cafes have proven that helping a neighbor means helping yourself and that kindness and working together goes a long way towards making life better for everyone.
“It’s been a topic of conversation, maybe even slightly before Starbucks came in because Biggby’s came in a couple months before that,” said Cahoots Executive Director Tom Adamson. “It’s a small town, but there’s enough people to go around.”
Cahoots is an independent non-profit organization that began in 2003 to provide a safe and non-threatening environment for the enrichment and socialization of local youth. It offers a space for groups to meet up and various programs including a weekly poetry night and a monthly open mic and band night.
Adamson first came to Angola in 2017 to be a priest of Holy Family Episcopal Church, which he continues to this day. Cahoots was the first business he patronized in town, and he soon became the executive director in November 2019 after years of volunteering at the cafe.
“I kind of fell in love with it from the get-go because I’ve always been a performer,” Adamson said. “When the chance came for me to be a part of this one (cafe), I just started volunteering.”
Adamson admitted that Starbucks is a major appeal for those who want a quick drive thru coffee or aren’t familiar with local brands, but even so, attracting “customers” per say isn’t what Cahoots is about.
“Because we’re a non-profit here at Cahoots, we feel that we’re in it for a different set of reasons,” he said. “We do a lot of different programs here, and there’s a lot of different clientele than you would have at a Starbucks.”
“With the people we serve, with our loyal customers and with the generosity of donors and community foundations, we are able to be here and pursue our mission in a coffee house environment,” he added. “That’s a unique thing, something you don’t see very often out there.”
Instead of maximizing profits, Cahoots focuses on community involvement, and that includes its neighboring coffee shop just down the street, Caleo Cafe, run by owner Irene Ulbrich.
Despite being a mere stone’s throw away from each other, Adamson and Ulbrich communicate and work together to improve each shop’s foot traffic.
“There’s a time of the day when she’s the only thing, and there’s a time of the day when we’re the only thing. So, that way we’re more cooperating than competing,” Adamson said. “She has encouraged me for a long time to be open later than her so that if somebody comes to town after 4 o’clock and they want an espresso, they can come here.”
Regardless of timing, each cafe also has its own priorities and atmospheres that appeal to different crowds.
“We try to have a unique personality,” Adamson said. “If you want to be a little more rambunctious and play a boardgame or hang out on the piano, you can come here, but if you want it to be library chill, you can go to Irene’s.”
For Ulbrich, having the opportunity to foster such a relationship with a fellow cafe and downtown business owner helped get her more involved with the community and better establish her coffee shop.
After growing up in Peru and living in various countries around the world, Ulbrich found herself drawn to the northeast Indiana area and started Caleo in May 2017.
“We came here knowing no one, so it has been very humbling and very special for me to have so many loyal customers,” she said.
While she holds an engineering degree and speaks multiple languages, Ulbrich ultimately decided to open a cafe that paid homage to her love of coffee, especially espresso.
“Coffee is a social time,” she said. “Every time I went to visit my dad in Peru, we always went for coffee.”
Her espresso machine has been a major relief to many different people who have stopped into Caleo while traveling along U.S. 20.
“Here in this area, you get a lot of traveling people in the summer and fall,” Ulbrich said. “In previous years, we have had European people. We have had people from the east coast and west coast that they decided to go across the U.S. and they cross right here. We’ve had all kinds of people.”
Locals as well as strangers have shown their support for the cafe even when it had to close its doors and serve only curbside during the pandemic shutdown last year.
Many customers would come to order coffee and leave generous tips to help the struggling business.
“During the pandemic we had strange people we had never met, stopping in with their car, ordering a drink, and literally giving me $40, $60, $80 — somebody even gave me once a $100 tip, for my baristas,” Ulbrich said. “They said, ‘I know it’s difficult right now. This is for you to help your baristas.’ It happened not once, not twice, but a few times. Some people from the local community and some total strangers. I was very touched to see that.”
Like many other local businesses, Caleo is slowly recovering from financial consequences of the pandemic, but Ulbrich looks forward to working more with local businesses and connecting with more of the community.
“I think one good thing about the pandemic, it has given time for people to think and appreciate the businesses that stay open,” Ulbrich said. “A small business may not be as convenient, but they are starting to appreciate it, to have businesses that stay open and cater to the community.”
One of the businesses that Ulbrich has gladly started working with is Amanda Lee Coffee, the most recent local cafe that opened in 2019.
Caleo and Amanda Lee have bonded over pandemic struggles and shared resources and support with each other in order to survive and thrive despite both shops’ recent openings.
“We absolutely adore her,” said Brenda Meerzo, co-owner of Amanda Lee along with her husband Gabriel. “Being a small shop, you help the small people out. You don’t need to badger or belittle.”
Gabriel and Brenda opened their shop at the Fremont outlet mall in July 2019 in honor of Gabriel’s younger sister, Amanda, who died in a car accident in 1997. The shop is far from Cahoots and Caleo in downtown Angola and frequently experiences more customers from the surrounding lakes and travelers from the toll road rather than in-town residents.
The business originally began as a mobile coffee truck in 2017 before the Meerzos opened their Fremont shop and expanded to another location in Sherwood, Ohio, in January.
“It’s been good. Another small town, another little area,” Brenda said. “The truck was a lot of fun because we got to meet a lot of people, but the outlet is still like the truck because we still get to meet a lot of people. We have so many out-of-towners coming in and out to visit us.”
Amanda Lee now has two locations and a third on the way in Hicksville, Ohio, but the Meerzos don’t plan to expand into a local chain like Biggby or Five Lakes.
“We want to stay as local as we can,” Brenda said. “I want people to know who we are.”
Because the Fremont outlet mall has slowly been seeing shops close their doors for good over the course of the pandemic, marketing outreach has not been as readily available for Amanda Lee as the other two cafes.
Even so, Brenda has remained optimistic that the shop’s location is indeed ideal.
“We’re building a local presence, so people are coming in to see us. People are coming in just to get coffee,” she said. “We’re thriving. I’m not seeing a decline. I’m actually seeing an up.”
Although Amanda Lee is out on its own little island at the outlets, Brenda and Gabriel still keep in contact with Ulbrich and have fostered a good relationship with Adamson at Cahoots as well.
Ulbrich often visits on Sundays for a drink when her own cafe is closed, and Adamson frequents the shop as well to sit down with a coffee and spend time with his daughter.
Just recently, the Cahoots espresso machine broke down, and Gabriel showed up, tools in hand, to not only fix it but also show Adamson how to fix it himself.
“Gabe came down and took it all apart and made some changes and taught me how to do some things,” Adamson said. “He did it free of charge, out of the goodness of his heart.”
It is this kind of consideration and cooperation that has allowed Angola to retain all three of its unique local cafes despite the encroachment of corporate coffee chains and hardships caused by an on-going pandemic.
All three shops have something unique and important to offer the city, and their dedication and perseverance is a shining reminder of what a community can accomplish.
“You gotta help each other,” Brenda said, “because if you’re not helping each other, you’re not helping anyone.”