Above: Nike Berry of Blue Owl (right) serves coffee to customer Rich Lucas at Fountain Square.
Under a new concessionaire’s licensing program, Blue Owl Coffee founder Nick Berry is now bringing his coffee bike to East Lansing on weekday mornings. He can currently be found serving hot coffee and “nitro” (ice-cold) coffee from about 7:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. in East Lansing’s Fountain Square, at the corner of M.A.C. and Albert Avenues, near the Marriott Hotel.
Berry’s coffee business started with that “coffee bike” heading around Lansing in September 2016. The business was successful enough that Blue Owl opened a storefront in Reo Town on Washington Avenue in Lansing, next to Saddleback BBQ, in April of this year.
Berry also runs Blue Owl Bookings, a catering and event-planning services, and he is quick to offer gratitude and recognition to his co-founders, Rich Whitman and Adam Klein, and his co-owners, Reuben Levinson and Nick Pope.
These days, when the weather is good and event-planning does not call, Berry is taking the mornings to bring Michigan-roasted coffee to East Lansing, to do what he loves—sharing good coffee and conversation.
Positioning his coffee bike cart near the Michigan Flyer bus stop, Berry tells ELi he finds himself functioning as something of a greeter for East Lansing. People just off the bus ask him directions and tips about where to get breakfast, lunch, or something they need to buy, and he’s happy to point them to local businesses.
He says he also enjoys regular visits from folks who work in downtown East Lansing shops and offices.
“Most everyone has been really excited to see us here,” he says. “It’s about connecting through the day.”
Berry says he has no problem finding excellent coffee from Michigan roasters, including local ones like Bloom Coffee Roasters, to offer his customers.
Heather Pope, Community Development Analyst for the City of East Lansing, explains that under the concessionaires’ licensing system, carts like Blue Owl’s involve a $200 application fee plus a $1,000 licensing fee, and food trucks involve a $200 application fee and a $1,600 annual licensing fee. For renewals, application costs drop to $100 per year.
Pope tells ELi, “The applications are reviewed by the Advisory Committee of the DDA [Downtown Development Authority].” That committee is made up of the DDA’s Public Policy and Business Development Committee plus a representative from a food service business. “The Committee reviews the applications and will recommend approval or denial to the City Manager. The applications are also reviewed by the Police Department and Fire Department.”
Berry describes the licensing system in East Lansing as “a little bumpy at first” but ultimately workable.
He and other business owners describe the approach to regulation in Reo Town as less intense. In Reo Town, visitors can easily find businesses inventively repurposing old spaces and taking advantage of wide, friendly sidewalks with picnic tables, lounge chairs, product displays, and plantings.
“Using what is there is one thing Reo Town does well,” says Berry.
Blue Owl’s Reo Town location (shown above) offers a much wider selection of beverages than the coffee bike cart can. These include non-alcoholic coffee “cocktails,” like the Ol’ Blue. A take-off on an Old Fashioned, the Ol’ Blue is concocted with muddled orange and cherry, nonalcoholic bitters, bourbon-casked honey, and espresso, shaken over ice.
This reporter asked Berry if he might consider opening a storefront in East Lansing. He says he is considering it, but right now he has a lot going on with the Reo Town store, the coffee bike, the catering service, and Great Lakes Collective, a record label.
Asked about where the name “Blue Owl” comes from, Berry explained it is a reference to a dream he had many years ago in which a blue owl “was eating everything I cared about.” The bird asked him, “Are you following me?” as if to suggest Berry should.