Cafe serves up coffee with conservative flavor
Latte-swilling liberals welcome, too, owner says
By Stacy St. Clair | Chicago Tribune reporter
July 31, 2008
CROWN POINT | From the moment customers enter the front door, the Conservative Cafe is serving up caffeinated doctrine.
Ann Coulter books sit stacked by the fireplace, and a picture of Ronald Reagan hangs on the wall. Fox News plays on all the televisions, and stock market quotes scroll along an electronic ticker above the cash register.
Behind the counter, owner Dave Beckham smiles proudly in a khaki T-shirt that reads "Zip It, Hippie." The shirt is for sale at the Crown Point, Ind., cafe, along with ones that say "Peace through Superior Firepower."
"It's a change from the traditional liberal bastion coffeehouses," Beckham says. "No one is going to bad-mouth America in here."
Friends warned Beckham to stay away from the conservative theme before the cafe opened in October. The former art teacher says he came up with the idea about five years ago, after souring on Starbucks and the other higher-end coffee chains.
He didn't like piped-in folk music, specialty drinks with faux-Italian names or patrons who frittered the hours away on laptops or listening to iPods. The atmosphere, he said, seemed an affront to Midwestern values he learned growing up in northwest Indiana.
"Coffee shouldn't be about sitting in a cafe for 12 hours," Beckham says. "Coffee gets us through our workday. It's what we drink before we make steel for the rest of the country or head out into the fields."
As his disdain for the coffee chains coincided with his fear of an erosion in national pride, Beckham made plans for the Conservative Cafe, an old-fashioned java joint near the Crown Point town square. There were two Starbucks within 3 miles of the shop, but Beckham and his wife, Jill, were convinced his pro-United States decor and Indiana roasted coffee would strike a chord with the community.
"We're trying to push back against the media and those in Europe who are anti-America," he said. "And it feels good to do it."
Since the opening, Starbucks has announced plans to close one of its Crown Point locations and Beckham has begun pondering franchise opportunities for his cafe. He acknowledges Starbucks' downturn stems from a sagging economy and the company's massive growth, but he believes his success proves that some people are turned off by traditional coffeehouse culture.
Crown Point resident Matthew McPhee is one of them. He doesn't feel comfortable in trendier coffeehouses, where he sometimes doesn't recognize the music and often doesn't agree with the political conversations. He prefers the Conservative Cafe, where red-white-and-blue bunting hangs outside the brick building and patrons can buy T-shirts that read, "Silly liberal. . . . Paychecks are for Workers."
"I like it here," he says. "I don't have to worry about listening to beatnik poetry or some political ideology that makes me want to vomit."
During his weekly visits, McPhee usually orders a "Radical Right" coffee, the cafe's strongest roast. His other options are conservative, moderate and liberal—the latter of which Beckham describes as a "Colombian decaf with no substance."
The decor may poke fun at liberals, but Beckham says they're welcome in his establishment. In the first few weeks after opening, for example, he extended his operating hours to accommodate an ideologically mixed group of "Hannity & Colmes" fans, who wanted to watch the show and debate the topics.
What's more, Beckham's partner, Bill McCall, is a—gasp!—Democrat.
"Conservative doesn't mean you belong to a certain political party," McCall says. "It's a way of thinking. It goes beyond politics."
Beckham and McCall say they still aren't drawing paychecks from the cafe. But Bob Metz, Center Township's supervisor of commercial assessments, says the shop has passed the six-month mark by which many fledgling eateries in the area falter.
"It has a unique theme," Metz says. "But that's what keeps people coming back."
The theme, however, has raised some eyebrows in the community. Although Crown Point tends to vote Republican, Democrats have a stronghold on the Lake County government complex a few blocks away.
State Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh, a Democrat from Crown Point, learned how controversial the cafe was when she decided to hold a fundraiser this last winter at the shop.
A local newspaper reporter predicted she wouldn't make any money, and a few backers refused to attend on principle, she says.
She says she chose the cafe because she wanted to support a local business and she enjoyed the food. She also liked the decor, which, despite all of Beckham's conservative flag-waving, includes a poster of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a flag honoring Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party and Life Magazine's famous photo of the V-J Day kiss in Times Square.
"It caused me a little bit of a problem, but people should get over it," VanDenburgh said. "It's only a name for God's sake."
Even if the name turns off a few folks, Beckham believes the moniker will help him much more than it will hurt.
"If I called it 'Dave's Cafe,' no one would talk about it," he said. "There's nothing intriguing about that."