It’s late morning on a Monday, and the clouded sky is sending overcast light through the front bay windows of Mahtomedi’s Coffee Cottage. I settle into a corner table that’s just the right size for a cup of French roast coffee, an iced cinnamon twist ($2.15) and a book that won’t hold my attention for long, for I have a sweeping view of the café and all the people who come through its door as they would the threshold of their own homes. As two men discuss their family histories a table over, an older gentleman steps into the shop and addresses, seemingly, the entire room. He’s in search of the phone number of some shared acquaintance, but no one seems to have what he’s looking for.
“Sorry, Tom,” one man says.
To my left, a group of three or four women crowd a table. Among them is Janel Donegan; she and her husband, Steve, have owned Coffee Cottage for the past eight years. Janel wears an apron and a pair of black-framed glasses that sit perched atop her blonde curls. Her proprietor status is apparent by the way she keeps one ear in the conversation while her eyes move between the coffee counter and the front door, so she’s always ready to greet or send off her guests.
Janel, a Mahtomedi native, can be found at Coffee Cottage just about every day. Working with her is a team of baristas who range from high school students to women like Brenda Begeman, a good friend who has been at the Cottage for 11 years and is, according to the Donegans, a fount of customer knowledge, from drink orders to kids’ names to birthdays.
“She’s the main reason a lot of people come in here,” Janel says.
While she and Begeman manage the store, Steve works part-time at a printing company; his coffee shop responsibilities have a narrower scope.
“I’m the chief ice cream and bakery tester,” he says with a smile. “I take out the garbage, and I do the books at night.”
Before Janel and Steve took over the business, their friend Laura Whitney owned it. Between the Donegans, Whitney and the very first owner, Leslie Nelson, Coffee Cottage has been a community hub for nearly 20 years.
“It’s the Cheers of Mahtomedi,” says Janel. “If somebody new comes in, it’s like walking into a bar in Wisconsin. Have you ever done that?”
To be sure, the Cottage sees its share of new faces, in addition to what Janel calls the “coffee klatch” of regulars. During farmers market season, shoppers head into the Cottage for a hot brew from Alakef Coffee Roasters before browsing stalls selling everything from fresh bread and vegetables to blown glass and essential oils. Meanwhile, cyclists coming off the Gateway Trail stop at the café to fuel up on chewy homemade granola bars ($2.15).
Still, it’s the regulars who make Coffee Cottage what it is, including Kirsten Skoglund and all the knitting enthusiasts from Lila and Claudine’s. There’s Craig, who has half an hour for lunch and chooses the Cottage as his cafeteria for its quick service and variety of sandwiches, salads and wraps (try the turkey walnut wrap, $7.80); there’s Dan, the go-to handyman who recently helped install a new light fixture and will likely be called upon again; there’s the more general group whose drinks are half-made by the time they reach the register, and there’s the select few who get away with ducking behind the counter to help themselves to a refill.
And if one of these people stops coming in for a few days, Janel tells me, she’ll start to ask around.
“We all watch out for everybody,” Janel says matter-of-factly. “We want to make sure they’re OK.”
--This is the first of the restaurant profiles we will be offering quarterly in White Bear Lake Magazine.