When you close your eyes and imagine the perfect location for a café, you might picture a shady street corner across from a city park, on a quiet, tree lined street filled with a mix of international students, professionals, and neighborhood residents. Their conversations hum from sidewalk tables, through plate-glass windows, into the heart of the café, where the bustling sounds and intoxicating aromas of coffee and pastries fill the air.
Since 1994, Kaldi’s on DeMun has been St. Louis’s ideal café. But its longevity and place in popular imagination were never guaranteed. As the street and city changed and grew around it, Kaldi’s changed and grew to meet the times. Once a travel agency, then a transcendental meditation center, 700 DeMun Ave piqued the interest of a restless young journalist at the Saint Louis Business Journal in the early nineties. Something about that corner spot, past a parade of antique shops, at the end of the street, caught and remained in Howard Lerner’s imagination. He approached his co-worker, Suzanne Langlois, with the idea that they quit their newspaper jobs and make a go of it as café owners, something unheard of and adventurous in those days. They had attended the Journalism School at Mizzou together and had been bitten by the coffee bug while frequenting an espresso bar in Columbia, next to the Blue Note, called Espresso Arno.
When Howard heard from a friend that the corner at DeMun and Northwood was vacant, he sprang into action, leaving the Business Journal on July 15th, 1994. “We signed the lease, and the next Monday I went to Builder’s Square, bought a plastic package of tools and said ‘I’m going to build a café once I figure out how to get this plastic off these tools.’ Suzanne’s dad, Paul, was a surgeon who loved doing carpentry. He taught me a lot. We did all the electrical, everything. We started in July and opened October 4th. There was no coffee culture, and no one knew how to deal with it. In fact, most of our business was at night; people would go to dinner, then a movie, then come get a coffee. But that quickly changed,” recalled Howard.
“At the time, in 1994, there was no fun place to go to have coffee. Coffee had not yet come to St Louis. There wasn’t even a Starbucks at the airport. But, in other cities, coffee houses were where you went to hang out,” Suzanne told the CHS Globe. “So, we really wanted to create a place for people. At the time when we started it was much more about a kind of a location for people to come and hang out, something for the community that wasn’t a bar. It was more about that than it was about the coffee.”
With that desire to create a new kind of community space in Saint Louis, Howard and Suzanne set about crafting bake sale-style pastries to match the coffee they were sourcing from Espresso Arno’s roaster in Kansas City. Howard recollected, “Sugar Creek Coffee were pioneers in coffee roasting, and we were almost immediately their biggest customer. There was no good way to ship the coffee, so they’d send it on the Greyhound and I’d go down to the bus terminal downtown to pick it up. It was cheaper than UPS, so that’s what we did. I’d go twice a week, but soon enough, we couldn’t get enough coffee.”
With the corner humming with a steady influx of Saint Louisans discovering the sleepy street and Kaldi’s supply chain stretched to its limit, it was time for the first major evolution of the business. “It was a crazy first year. We decided to open our business because we wanted more free time. Suddenly, there was no more free time.”
Originally, Kaldi’s only occupied the small, corner storefront that is still our main entrance, while the space beside it was an antique store called Geronimo’s Cadillac. The owner was skeptical that Kaldi’s would be successful selling one cup of coffee at a time, but a year later, Geronimo’s was gone and Kaldi’s signed a lease on that space, which would house our first roaster. Suzanne and Howard went to a NOLA coffee show in 1995 to learn more about roasting, met the creator of the San Fransciscan roaster, Sherman Dodd, and ordered a machine from him. It was delivered, installed, and proudly turned on for the first time. “It was a complete disaster. The installers used dryer venting to vent it. (Exhaust from our first coffee roaster reached well over 400 degrees) It immediately burst into flame. We used to have many, many fires, filling the neighborhood with smoke,” chuckled Howard. As the fires decreased and the experience increased, Kaldi’s never lost its founding principle of being a community gathering place, but it added a second, new goal: roasting great coffee.
As Kaldi’s began its first transformation, from café to café roaster, DeMun itself was changing. A year after Kaldi’s opened its doors, another Saint Louis icon, Jimmy’s on the Park, replaced an antique shop and began its 21 year run as Kaldi’s next-door neighbor. “… Clayton used to be very sleepy,” Suzanne says, “but now, the restaurants keep people there and bring people in… when you have a whole bunch of them, it’s livelier, and we noticed the same thing here.” As the number of restaurants grew, DeMun remained a relatively calm oasis off Clayton Avenue, but also began to receive the attention it deserved from the city. “Demun had always been a forgotten place, in Clayton,” said Howard. No longer. The sidewalks, once cramped and narrow, were expanded and the streetlights were updated, allowing for a classic European sidewalk café experience.
By 1997, Kaldi’s was known throughout the city as a place to gather, talk, and enjoy the best coffee in town. The Rodriguez sisters, hired that fall, recalled how quickly relationships formed with those early regulars, the bonds between the team members (six sisters worked together for years), and the ever-present care of Suzanne. “Suzanne was this place,” said Howard. The truth is, they both were, as were all the team members and customers who opened the old, creaky door at 700 DeMun. If you were waiting in the main room or sitting at a table on the sidewalk beside the old coffee-producing-countries-of-the-world railing, you were part of the fabric of early coffee culture in Saint Louis, as it was being created.
Today, despite the myriad of changes and the passage of time (we now have team members who as children attended Captain Elementary across the street and came in for snacks after school), DeMun remains, fundamentally, one of the great gathering places in Saint Louis. Despite the roaster moving into a separate facility, the old café being completely refreshed in the late 2000’s, and the constant evolution of the street and city, the people who work and relax on that old sleepy corner remain and maintain Kaldi’s constant mission and joy.
If you sit against the window near the front door of the cafe and look down the slope toward the corner, where the tables are all full and the shadows of the leaves play across the customers as they dance slightly in the wind, and then close your eyes and let memories fill those dazzling bright spaces between the shadows, it could be any year. Your first date continues into the night, over coffee. The hot chocolate nuzzles in your hands as your family strolls through the park across the street. A late study session drags on at this new cafe you’ve just discovered. That business meeting outlines your future over and over. Another journal page fills again with the words that you don’t want to forget. Some people live comfortably in this liminal space and greet the founders like their old baristas, while some people in the present have no idea who created this community. Nevertheless, the corner remains alive and ever-changing, renewed by each day’s fresh experience, the shade of the old trees, the buzz of the café vibrating with life, and the cherished conversations that take place over Kaldi’s coffee.
ADDENDUM: MEMORIES FROM YOU
As we wrote these memories from the earliest days of Kaldi's Coffee, we asked you for some of your own recollections. We couldn't help but share just a few that we think capture the place that our corner cafe has in so many hearts:
“Early in my teaching career, I worked at Ralph M. Captain Elementary across the street from the DeMun cafe. I wasn't much of a coffee drinker at the time, but it was wonderful to meet with parents, see students, and relax prior and post school days. The DeMun location is such a focal point of that community, and I was always happy to receive gift cards for Kaldi's each holiday season! Now, Kaldi's is a staple in my home, and I am thankful to the DeMun cafe for sparking my love for coffee and Kaldi's in general.”
“I was born in St. Louis and my family always used to go to Kaldi's on DeMun. We moved to Indianapolis when I was pretty little, but my dad has continued to purchase Kaldi's coffee even 20 years after moving. Last year I took a road trip and one stop that I knew I had to make was Kaldi's on DeMun. As soon as I pulled up I was immediately filled with a sense of nostalgia and joy. I always look forward to visiting and hope to share the tradition of Kaldi's coffee with my own family.”
“I was taking an interior design class and we were assigned to go look at various coffee shops around Saint Louis and make observations and sketches. I remember we had a hard time finding the place (I am directionally challenged) but once we got there, the whole group fell in love with the large windows and small-town feel of the location. Sitting in the window at the bar makes you feel like you are sitting in a movie. It’s amazing.”