In this ongoing series, ArtRat Gallery Social Media Manager Maddy Visscher explores the people, places and things that make our neighborhood great. Email Maddy with feedback and suggestions about the topics you want to see us cover!
“Our job is way more than just making drinks,” said Jon Bailey, owner of The Lantern Coffee Bar and Lounge (100 Commerce Ave. SW).
“A few years ago, I had a realization when taking a look at coffee shops all over the United States: We’re all doing the same thing — serving high-quality coffee,” Jon told ArtRat. “At The Lantern, it’s different. We focus on the environment, our service and your experience.“
That commitment to Grand Rapids’ Heartside neighborhood guided The Lantern through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and still shapes the way the popular coffee spot treats customers, other local businesses and the community at large.
Steve Wiltjer and Kevin Wallace opened The Lantern in April 2013, in the old Grand Central Engineering Building — a site that had stood gutted and empty for 15 years. The space is much bigger on the inside than it seems when you pass by; the spacious downstairs area still features the Grand Central’s original wood and is filled with tables and desks for people to socialize or work.
“I have all of my meetings at Lantern,” Rock Dandeneau, owner of Taste Buds-Kitchen Connects, a catering business just around the corner at 122 Division Ave S, told ArtRat.
Down in the vault
The historic building holds some surprises. Jon led me down to a former bank vault that’s now The Lantern’s dry-goods storage. “This door is the original one,” he said, spinning the combination lock. “It’s supposedly worth a lot, too … But it’s so heavy, no one has moved it!”
Inside, there's not much space. “It forces us to work a little differently, more intentionally. For example, instead of ordering 10,000 to-go cups, we order 1,000.” He pointed out ingredients that go into The Lantern’s latest offering: homemade oat milk. Though the ingredients are Michigan-made, the recipe required a lot of tweaks and a journey to New Orleans where Jon met a master oat-milker to learn his ways. After Jon added his own personal touches, the cafe added it to the menu on Monday.
The coffee bar is intentional with its waste, too. Just outside the vault, the space also holds The Lantern’s compost bins: All coffee, filters and tea scraps are composted for distribution to local farms.
Navigating a pandemic
Jon started at The Lantern as a barista, but his role grew over time. In 2020, he was already on track to take over ownership responsibilities from The Lantern’s founders when COVID-19 hit.
For a gathering spot like The Lantern, social-distancing requirements were a critical hit, and the cafe shut down entirely for several months. “I didn’t want to reopen without indoor seating,” Jon explained. “It’s such an integral part of what we are.”
Jon remained committed to operating The Lantern while keeping customers safe. “I didn’t really have experience doing that kind of thing,” he said, “but I saw it as an opportunity to save something that
was important to me, to not just watch it die in front of me. While there are trials and tribulations, I always [work] to pull myself up.”
The Lantern team shares Jon’s focus on the cafe’s role as stewards of the community. Savannah Jeanelle took a moment to talk with us. Between brewing my Malabar Tea and packing a shot of espresso, our local barista filled ArtRat in about what The Lantern does best.
“Engrained within us, we are a part of — and take part in — this community,” Savannah said. “All are welcome. This community is so full of vibrant people: artists, musicians, people with stories to tell.
No matter who you are, we’ll always be happy to make you a drink and have a conversation.”
Bonus content: How The Lantern revived Carrie Underwood's tour
When Lantern owner Jon Bailey isn't serving customers at the counter or milking oats in the basement, he can often be found backstage at some of the hottest concerts in Grand Rapids.
"We have a unique relationship with 20 Monroe Live," he said, where The Lantern is a frequent green-room fixture, catering to touring acts.
The team has served coffee backstage to all sorts of artists and their crews, including Weird Al, the Front Bottoms, and Pierce the Veil — they'll even be hanging out with Five Finger Death Punch this weekend.
They had to scramble last month when Carrie Underwood's tour rolled into Grand Rapids. when she visited GR last month. Jon recalls, “[20 Monroe Production Coordinator Allison Oard] called me and asked, ‘Can you be set up in 2 hours? Some of Carrie’s crew has been up for 36 hours straight.’ And I was like, 'Yeah!' It wasn’t easy, but it was successful."