by CLIFF AND NANCY HILL
When Rich and Michelle Zeck opened Frenz Coffee House in Rockford in July 2006, they had a dream of creating a place of community fellowship where everyone would feel welcome. They accomplished that goal and much more. But Friday evening, Feb. 4, more than 1,100 past customers on the coffee houses’ e-mail list received a message saying Frenz would cease to be in business as of 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 6, some two days later. In the message, the Zecks invited all to join with them in a bittersweet celebration of Frenz presence in Rockford during the past four-and-a-half years.
How could this be? On the face of it, the business appeared to be quite successful, but appearances can be deceiving. So let us first dwell on all that was accomplished and achieved.
From the very beginning the Zecks embraced the Rockford artistic community. Local artists and photographers were encouraged to display their creative works on the walls throughout the coffee house, providing a venue for exposure and a possible sale.
Area groups soon found a welcoming place to hold regular gatherings. The Zecks even allowed and encouraged the groups to rearrange chairs and tables to their own liking. Eclectic groups, too numerous to mention, took advantage of the generous offer. We’ll name a few but not all: the Rockford Plein Air Artists, the after-class tai chi group, political and community town hall meetings, book clubs, and Bible study groups. Book-signings were also a regular occurrence.
Of course, we can’t forget the Saturday morning gathering of coffee house “regulars” composed of many who had discovered Frenz soon after its opening.
“Conversations were varied and lively and at oftentimes rowdy,” said longtime Rockford resident Ruthie Graves, 88. “At the beginning, we hardly knew one another but after all this time we’ve become the best of friends. Now, where will we go?” added Graves with a tear in her eye.
Friday evenings, Frenz provided a place for musicians and singers just beginning the pursuit of their own dreams to perform, oftentimes, before full houses.
“A lot of people who had their début at Frenz have gone on to great success and are now playing in downtown Grand Rapids clubs,” said Rich Zeck.
Young mothers and their youngsters will certainly miss the bi-weekly Tuesday morning performances of “Mr. Picklehead.” Picklehead enthralled the children and encouraged them to join in as he sang story and action songs.
“I’ll be singing ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ for the rest of my life,” laughingly said Michelle Zeck.
Meanwhile, the moms were enjoying coffee and baked goods and some much needed adult conversation while the kids were being entertained.
And not to be forgotten, “whistle musician extraordinaire” Cal Olsen, on Saturday mornings throughout the Rockford Farm Market season, showcased his virtuosity on what appeared to be an unlimited number of whistles (think flute-like instruments here).
Prominently displayed inside Frenz was a large map of the world. First-time visitors, who happened to discover the coffee house, were encouraged to place a colored pin on the map, marking their hometowns. As it turned out, not only did these visitors arrive on scene from around the U.S., many found themselves there that day from around the globe. Indeed, the map labeled “Frenz from around the world” had the entire U.S. covered with the colored pins. Much the same could be said for all of Europe. All were invited to add their name to Frenz’ e-mail list.
Two such customers were Dave and Anne Thompson of Ireland, who also own a summer residence in Rockford. The Thompsons were back in town for a winter visit and came Sunday to the final Frenz day of business.
“We placed the first pin on the map and have found a sense of fellowship and warmth—and the coffee hasn’t been that bad either—so much so that Frenz Coffee House became the destination of choice every Saturday morning when we were in country,” said Thompson. “We found a welcome here that we will never forget.”
Rich and Michelle certainly succeeded in making Frenz a community center and indeed all about the community of Rockford. But Frenz is, after all, a business and a business needs to show consistent profits to succeed. Such was not the case for Frenz.
Perhaps the business was ill fated from the very beginning. Shortly after opening, the U.S. financial markets broke down and the nation slipped into a recessionary cycle that the country has yet to recover from. “The economy became an insurmountable obstacle,” said Rich.
It didn’t help any that Frenz was located in an obscure inside corner of a beautiful riverside building that has as yet to reach its full potential. Lacking visibility and exposure to the busy downtown Rockford street scene prevented walk-in traffic from discovering all that Frenz had to offer. This in itself might have been the telling reason.
Doug Havemeier of Herman’s Boy, upon learning of Frenz closing, said, “I’m ever so sorry to hear that. It’s best for all of us, merchants and community alike, when all of the businesses of Rockford are supported and profitable.”
So just prior to closing for that last time on Sunday, Rich Zeck addressed a full house of diehards not wanting to leave, telling them, “We love you all and will miss you for the rest of our lives. We thank you for your past support and for being here today to wish us well in the future. Frenz didn’t end the way we expected, but you never know what’s in God’s plan to happen next. Everyone who has ever been at Frenz has contributed something to the Frenz experience. We all have good things to offer!”
Yes, it was bittersweet. More than a few tears were shed that day, but all managed to leave with a smile on their face because that’s what Frenz was always about.
In the end, Frenz will be remembered, reminiscent of the old sitcom “Cheers,” as a place where everyone knew your name and you knew theirs. We were all family!