Space Time Coffee To Close Indefinitely
The micro-roastery dealt with its own hardships, but its story shares commonalities with other struggling small businesses.
The operation grew quickly from selling at markets to operating pop-ups and, ultimately, a brick-and-mortar cafe within a downtown hotel.
But after several unlucky breaks, the company is running low on both of its namesakes, as well as money. As a result, Space Time will begin an indefinite hiatus at the end of the month.
“I’ve tried to find a way to make it work,” Sterr told Urban Milwaukee, noting that the impending closure has been creeping up for a while. “I didn’t want to say anything until I had explored every avenue and corner because, you know, it’s sad. We’ve built this community, and I don’t want to be the one who ends up letting the community down.”
The business could still have a fighting chance, but only if Sterr can find a reasonably-priced commercial space in which to operate a cafe. Ideally, one that’s located on Milwaukee’s Lower East Side or in Fox Point, where Space Time’s strongest customer base resides.
While there’s no shortage of vacant storefronts, the biggest obstacle for Sterr is affordability. “Looking at commercial space in either of those places is ridiculously expensive,” he said. “There’s no amount of sales that a cafe can make to match what the overhead is.”
Sterr said it’s frustrating to see so many buildings sitting empty while small businesses are scrambling to afford rent.
“Property ownership groups are spending a ton of money to build these high rise, luxury apartments that are — a lot of them — standing half empty. And I wonder what what the plan is with all this space that nobody’s able to afford or use,” he said. “Something in a space is is better than nothing. For anyone with a vested interest locally, I think that’s an important thing to remember.”
Sterr is looking to connect with a property owner who is leasing a small retail space, though he’d also be happy to explore a partnership with an existing business, such as a store, restaurant or hotel.
But the price and location need to make sense, he said, adding that, at this point, the potential for a “miracle turnaround” is slipping away.
The lease for Sterr’s commercial kitchen space is up at the end of January and his license is set to expire in mid-February. At this time, he has no plans to renew.
“It’s really unhealthy to be operating a business from a point of desperation,” he said. “It’s not good for the business, it’s not good for you as a business person and it’s not good for your customer base.”
In addition to discussing Space Time’s current status, Sterr shed light on the past few years, which saw the once-thriving business descend to the brink of closure.
A Green Bay native with a background in the performing arts, Sterr launched the micro-roastery after moving back to Milwaukee. The concept saw steady growth, despite the raging COVID-19 pandemic, and expanded into a brick-and-mortar space within the Dubbel Dutch hotel, 817-819 N. Marshall St., in October 2021.
“I was wearing every hat imaginable and working — essentially — two full-time jobs,” said Sterr, who estimated that he consistently worked 60 to 80 hours per week for his first year in business.
It seemed like it was all going to pay off.
“My business, when I was in the Dubbel Dutch, it was profitable,” he said. “It really was forecast and projected that all I really needed to do was get through the first quarter of the next year, and things were ready to take off as far as Space Time Coffee was concerned.”
But before that could happen, the hotel was sold to new owners. In August 2022, developer Scott Lurie‘s F Street Group purchased the building, from a partnership of developer Juli Kaufmann, general contractor Andy Braatz and architect Patrick Jones.
“Very quickly, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to be able to manage my business the way I needed to in that space for it to survive,” Sterr said. “So I chose not to renew my lease.”
Soon after, F Street replaced Space Time with Gülden Room. At first, the new cafe and cocktail lounge carried Space Time coffee. But after just a few months, the business cut its cafe operations and transitioned solely to a cocktail lounge, effectively ending its partnership with Sterr.
“Nobody did anything wrong. Nobody did anything that was illegal. It’s just that the timing of things and my position financially just didn’t work out,” he said.
For Sterr and his customer base, Space Time represents a truly local enterprise that provides some of the best coffee in town. “Community is super important. Quality is super important. Integrity is super important,” he said.
“The thing that people really liked about Space Time Coffee is that I wasn’t trying to shove gimmicks down people’s throats, I wasn’t trying to do everything under the sun to to try hide quality issues,” he said. “It was the idea that we don’t need all this extra fancy, crazy stuff if you just have good base ingredients and you have somebody who knows what they’re doing with them.”
Throughout the ups and downs, Sterr has remained committed to representing himself authentically. And he takes pride in that. But it doesn’t always equate to high profitability — a harsh reality that Sterr has grappled with for several years.
“I don’t want to play that business game of saying ‘whatever it takes, I’ll do it and then my business will keep going,'” he said. “To me, if you can’t be proud of what your business is and what it stands for and the community you build around it, then it doesn’t make sense to have your own business.”
If this is the end for Space Time, Sterr said he takes heart in seeing other local businesses continue to thrive, specifically highlighting Heirloom MKE and Tots on the Street. “They’re the real deal and they deserve all the success,” he said.
For now, Space Time coffee is still available for purchase through the business’s website. For in-person sales, Space Time will continue to appear at the weekly Milwaukee Winter Farmers Market, held each Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. at 5305 W. Capitol Dr., through Jan. 20.
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