They had to fight many battles to get here, but Michael and Desiree Keen have finally opened Rivers and Roads Coffee, their project at 2549 Bruce Randolph Avenue.
When the couple first found the space in North City Park, it was home to a garage — with little more than dirt floors and a tar roof. Now, almost a year later, the coffee shop fills with light from glass garage doors, while houseplants and bric-a-brac give the space a homey feel. Most important to the Keens, it’s full of people. “This is pretty much how we imagined it would be,” says Desiree.
Michael owned Studio 6 (now Mmm…Coffee! on Santa Fe Drive) for eight years and sold it three years ago to pursue other interests. After spending some time in the art business, including a stint as program director with Art Gym, he wanted to get back in the coffee game with Desiree. “Almost instantly I missed the daily [life] of the shop,” says Michael. “Everyone who comes through is such a character; it’s like having 400 friends that are more than just Facebook liking you.”
In order to bring those 400 friends together, the Keens plan to host monthly community dinners on the second Sunday of the month beginning in November. “It seems like the more we know about people, the less scary things are and the less 'other' they are. We are all so, so similar,” says Michael. “We think if we can get people talking and see what it means to have neighbors that are different than you, then that’s really great.”
Chef friends of the couple will donate their skills, and the Keens will pay for the food. The only catch is that guests won't be able to take it to go. “It’s a free meal," Michael explains. "You can donate what you want, so if someone’s doing great, we hope they will donate. All the money will go to a project that will rotate.” The first organization they want to give to is one that supports people with Lyme disease: Desiree is a survivor.
Desiree spent twelve years in the cosmetology world, most recently as a teacher at the Emily Griffith Technical College's program for cosmetology, before she became sick. “I had a three-year period — ending now — that I couldn’t work due to sickness. I was in a wheelchair for most of it. For me, it’s not just about changing careers, it’s about figuring out a career again and figuring out how to work again,” she says. And, although tired from working fourteen-hour days, she still smiles and says it's "great.”
“When Des was starting to get enough out of the woods health-wise that we could start actually envisioning a future again... which is weird on the other side of it, but it got really crazy for a while,” remembers Michael. “We were newly wed, and suddenly our entire world is about doctors' offices and pills, and she went from being a professional to being unable to work. Those kinds of shocks hit you in waves. I feel like twenty years went by, and it’s been three.”
Similarly, Desiree reflects on life after her illness: “I think we just re-examined our lives a lot and our vision of ‘love above all else’ came before the coffee shop. We wanted to be business owners, and once we found the underlying ‘why,’ it all sort of fell into place. And we have the experience, and we love, love coffee, and we missed it terribly.”
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The Keens went from not being able to do much to wanting to do it all. At Rivers and Roads, the chai and syrups are made from scratch. In addition to roasting their own coffee, they bake all of the pastries and breads for their lunch sandwiches in-house, with plenty of gluten-free options. Desiree’s illness, which resulted in dietary restrictions including a gluten intolerance, catapulted her into the world of baking. “I was the person who couldn’t make ramen,” she jokes. “Now I’ve gotten to the point where people are surprised that it’s gluten-free,” she says of her baking.
Michael, who describes himself as the opposite of gluten-free, says “If you have something like that where you have dietary restrictions, you shouldn’t be made to feel less because you have needs. Even though it was initially embarrassing, you can really mess up her next week, could put her in the hospital. Going through that made us aware to cook with love.”
Both Michael and Desiree are Colorado natives and appreciate the support they've received from their community throughout Desiree's illness, as well as during a recent string of vandalism at the cafe and the delayed process of opening the shop. "I think we've said we're opening in six weeks for six months," laughs Michael. Their parents have stepped in to help staff the coffee shop, which is open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. on weekdays (except Tuesdays, when they are closed for much needed naps) and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the weekends.