The vision of the Smith-Douglas-More house as a community space began with its final residents. When Helen and Earl More left their historic home, they donated their home to the city of Eden Prairie. And while Ann Schuster never met them, the owner of Smith Coffee and Cafe said she’s talked with relatives who spoke of the Mores’ desire to see the place blossom into a place for people to relax, talk and connect.
“He did have a vision that people would gather here,” Schuster said. “It sort of has this magic.”
Schuster has owned the cafe that operates out of the historic house since 2006, when she first opened a Dunn Brothers franchise there. She, too, pursued the idea of a place where people could connect with friends, family and strangers over a coffee or croissant.
“I’ve always thought that Eden Prairie could use a community gathering space,” she explained. “I think there’s something magic about coffee and how it connects people.”
In her 13 years of running the coffee shop, as it transitioned from Dunn Brothers to Rustica and finally to her own creation, Smith Coffee, Schuster has seen the role of a coffee shop grow and change like foam swirling on top of a cappuccino.
“People’s expectations are different now,” she said. “They’re asking for more.”
She pointed to the demand for individually made mugs of pour-over coffee, rather than a quick carry-out cup of caffeine.
“The idea was, as fast as we can get it in our hands,” Schuster said. Now, customers look for a drink they can savor and enjoy slowly.
“People are really happy to wait for that,” she noted.
That freedom to experiment with drinks and service is part of why Schuster left behind her partnerships with Dunn Brothers and Rustica.
“I wanted something where I could change with the times and try things,” she said. And as customers asked for different drinks or meals, “it became pretty clear people wanted the flexibility that came with independence.”
That flexibility has come in the form of added outdoor seating and a bocce court, 25 cent coffee for seniors and nine years of treasure hunts, to name a few. Right now, Schuster’s focus is a wider array of menu options.
“A dream would be to expand the kitchen space, which we have outgrown,” she said.
Schuster doesn’t take individual credit for the innovation around Smith; any special event or new offering is the product of brainstorming with her children, three of whom work at Smith with Schuster. Christian, 29, has been behind the counter the longest, having started part-time as a teen in 2006.
The tradition of family business stretches three generations in Schuster’s family, she said. She grew up in St. Paul, and both of her parents owned local businesses. Her mother ran a gift and kitchen shop in Highland Park and her father led an architectural firm. Around the dinner table, they’d discuss the ins and outs of entrepreneurship as a family, with Schuster and her siblings peppering their parents with questions throughout. She brings that same curious spirit to Smith when she talks about the business after hours.
“It’s really fun to talk about it as a family,” Schuster said.
It was her father’s business that brought Schuster to Eden Prairie originally. He was the lead architect of Eden Prairie High School, and the family often visited on weekends to see the site taking shape. Those trips grew into a connection for Schuster, and she moved to Eden Prairie in 1989.
As the proprietor of a “third space” — a place that’s neither work nor home, but a separate place for the community to gather — Schuster sees the full range of those who seek that in-between space, be it freelancers having a meeting, high schoolers studying after school, or a 90-year-old regular customer visiting for his daily drink. From behind the counter, she and her employees answer questions, chat with familiar faces and watch as patterns ripple through the community. During the 2008 recession, Schuster said, she saw the direct effects of the crash on her customers and small businesses.
“We had customers who didn’t have jobs, customers who were going through a hard time,” she said. They’d often come to Smith to work together on job applications and networking, she said, rather than meeting in a house.
“People don’t meet in their homes as much as they used to,” she observed, which brings them to places like Smith. “I love the small town feel of that.”
When she’s not creating a space for others to gather, Schuster nurtures her own community. The day after her conversation with Eden Prairie News, Schuster had plans to meet six friends from high school who were visiting the area. She’s stayed connected with friends from grade school, college and neighborhood activities throughout her life, she said.
“I am really fortunate,” Schuster said. “I like these long friendships.”
In the end, it all circles back to the community. Even when Schuster first decided to create a cafe, it was never just about the coffee, she said.
“I was more passionate about finding a place for people to meet and kids to go,” she said.