The Rapidian

Local founder and owner keeps Kava House strong for more than 20 years

Pam Murray and her daughter Leigh Vander Molen saw the city go from coffeehouses being a rarity when they opened to being common- and have stayed strong through the two decades.

Kava House Times and Location

Monday - Friday: 7 a.m. - 10 p.m.
Saturday: 7 a.m. - 8 p.m.
Sunday: 8 a.m. - 4 p.m.

  • 1445 Lake Drive SE
  • Grand Rapids, MI 49506
  • 616-451-8600
Sidewalk view of Kava House on Lake Drive.

Sidewalk view of Kava House on Lake Drive. /LEJ Studios

In 2013, coffee houses and shops seem to be on every corner. The morning beverage has become an anytime beverage for coffee enthusiasts, and cream and sugar went from being the only additions to just a few out of a hundred. Pam Murray, co-owner of the Kava House on Lake Drive, knows this story as well as anyone.

“We were the first ones,” says Murray. She and her daughter and partner, Leigh Vander Molen, celebrated 20 years of brewing last February and are proud of their endurance and growth.

“Twenty years ago, there were hardly any coffee houses anywhere. In bigger college towns, you could find a few, maybe,” she says. Murray remembers a place on Wealthy Street that sold coffee, but it didn’t have the menu, atmosphere, or capacity of what she envisioned.

As much as they have always enjoyed coffee, it wasn’t a coffee house they had in mind in the beginning.

“We were just looking for a business,” she says. “Leigh got out of Michigan State, and I was an ex-business teacher.”

Murray had held teaching jobs on both sides of the mitten, working on the eastern side while her husband finished schooling for his law degree. Back here in West Michigan, she subbed in teaching positions around Grand Rapids.

But even with their drive and knowledge, they hadn’t found the right niche to open a business, so they traveled back to Leigh’s alma mater. Inspiration came when they sat down for a cup of coffee.

“Want to do this?” Murray said more than twenty years ago, and she smiles happily when telling the serendipitous tale.

“Absolutely,” Leigh replied.

Though Grand Rapids didn’t have any mom and pop coffee houses, they were about to have a thriving mom and daughter coffee house.

“It took us about a year from ‘Yes, we’re going to do it,’ to finding a place to understanding coffee to location scouting.”

Of course, coffee houses would be nothing without their beans. Of all the coffee companies that they contacted, only one called Murray and Vander Molen back. But over 20 years, Murray is satisfied with the supplier, calling it a “good marriage.”

Their current location wasn’t where they first envisioned their business to begin. Previously, the building had been a home to a drycleaner, and they passed it many times in the hunt for the perfect venue. Murray’s husband, an attorney, was by their side to help with the legal troubles and to give the appearance that the mother and daughter team was a formidable business duo to anyone doubting their drive and prowess, Murray says. She says they had to had to jump over a few hurdles to get to a thriving business up and running because a mother and daughter team didn’t look very promising or impressive to contractors and landlords.

Time has told a different story.

“We were given six months before they thought we’d be closed,” says Murray. Looking at their success now, Murray can’t help but laugh when remembering what their own landlords said of them when initially renting out their location.

That’s not the only struggle they’ve endured. Multiple times windows have been broken and vandalism got so bad that guards with dogs were hired to keep their venue safe.

“It’s a completely different place for a business; now this neighborhood is a place for kids and families to walk and shop. You see bikes and strollers all the time,” she says. Murray believes that her Kava House was instrumental in making the neighborhood a safer and more welcoming place.

“Even with all the vandalism and trouble, we stayed. We got tough,” she says. “We weren’t going to put up with any of it.”

Even after surviving the doubters and initial vandalism, not everyone was on board with two women pioneering a booming business, though the duo had shown they could. Murray says they had not been respected like the business women they saw themselves as. A short time after opening, they were told to build an extra restroom to accommodate more business or they would be shut down, though they had been told during construction one restroom would be enough.

Murray and Vander Molen responded fiercely.

In addition to another bathroom, they now have a bakery and an extra coffee lounge. The glass-walled side lounge is typically more for quiet folks to study and read in. It can be rented out for meeting and big groups.

“We take great pride in the coffee we serve, our coffee supplier, in our customers and employees . . . in everything!” Murray says. Murray says some customers came in on day one and still can be seen enjoying their favorite beverage on the outside patio or in one of two coffee lounges.

Though coffee shop competitors like Starbucks and Biggby have been built around them, Kava House has remained and thrived and has no plans of leaving.

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