Stillwater Coffee marks Deb Witte’s next chapter

Stillwater Coffee will offer visitors to Morgan and Morio Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery a place to relax while patients are treated when construction is completed at 1275 N. Center Point Road, Hiawatha, later this year. PHOTO DAVE DEWITTE


By Dave DeWitte
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Opening and selling three Corridor coffee houses, along with several other businesses, has given Deb Witte a unique perspective on the task ahead of her as she brews up Hiawatha’s next coffee purveyor.

“Most important is to keep it simple, to focus on the coffee first and then try to keep in mind that you can’t please everyone,” said Ms. Witte, who expects to open Stillwater Coffee Co. this summer at 1275 N. Center Point Road in Hiawatha.

Coffee houses have become places where people can expect to find anything from kombucha to craft beer. It’s next to impossible to do it all and do it right.

“Serve quality, not quantity,” said the founder of Brewed Awakenings in Cedar Rapids and Wit’s End in Marion.

Even a successful deviation from the coffee formula can create problems, she said. At Java Joe’s, an early venture in Cedar Rapids, her decision to offer homemade soups and salads for lunch brought a daily lunch crowd that added greatly to her workload, without adding a lot to the bottom line.

Stillwater will be different from her earlier ventures in two ways. First, it will be connected to Morgan & Morio Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, serving as a kind of waiting area for the family members of patients. Second, Ms. Witte will be managing the coffeehouse rather than owning it.

Nick Morio, a partner in Morgan & Morio, and Kim Morio, an endodontist practicing just a few blocks away, invited Ms. Witte to consider buying or leasing the space to open her next venture. But at 58, after rubbing up against some health issues toward the end of her last coffee venture, she decided she could do without the rigors of ownership.

The husband-and-wife dentists then decided to hire Ms. Witte as general manager, and own the coffee house themselves.

“I get to focus on the fun part,” Ms. Witte said, referring to the daily interaction with customers, employees and suppliers. Getting to know the customers has been the greatest joy of her business career, she added.

“Our vision for Stillwater is a place that’s comfortable, quiet, yet family-friendly. It’s a warm and inviting place for patients’ families as they wait for their loved ones to have their procedures next door.”

Located near telecommunications company Windstream, Stillwater will have a view of a small lake, a fireplace and an outdoor seating area.

“It’s about, ‘Be still,’” she said, “about tranquility and relaxing by a fire.”

The focus on family will include a children’s area with quiet activities and “a lot of books” – a fitting decision by Ms. Witte, the former owner of Next Page Books in Cedar Rapids’ NewBo district.

Stillwater will do some of its baking onsite, but will bring in other goods and sandwiches from New Pioneer Co-op and items from Rustic Hearth, a local artisanal bakery.

Ms. Witte would have had a hard time visualizing herself working as manager for someone else a decade ago. With a deep independent streak, she struck out on her own at the age of 14 and a half, working as a waitress to support herself for a few years before going back to school and becoming a teacher.

“Kim and Nick [Morio] are the only people I could ever imagine working for,” she said. “They are genuinely good people who care about their patients and their families.”

Besides having Mr. Morio in the same building, Ms. Witte said Stillwater will soon have Ms. Morio nearby when her endodontics practice, Apex Endodontics, completes its new office building. Some of the office staff even offered to take some part-time roles at the coffee house.

Besides her own experience, Ms. Witte will be bringing in some tested talent. They include her very first coffee house employee from Brewed Awakenings 19 years ago, who was then a college student and is now a teacher at Kennedy High School.

In all, Ms. Witte has opened and sold at least a half-dozen businesses, including interior decor and art shops. She says the coffee business – even though she doesn’t want to own another – remains special.

“It’s a place to connect,” she says, “and with so little connection in the world right now, it’s a happy place.”   CBJ