Iowa City's new High Ground Cafe keeps coffee local

BY STEFAN JURAN | JUNE 27, 2013 5:00 AM

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A couple of workers start conversing with a customer in order to perfect her espresso order. In the corner, an older couple seem to be discussing the stories they briefly glanced over in that morning’s paper while enjoying their afternoon coffees. Outside, a group of workers are high above the windows, trying to hang the new High Ground logo sign on the black awning.

Among all of this action, Wes Ward, the owner of High Ground Coffee Shop, continually moves back and forth among customers, workers, and various callers in order to ensure his new business is running as smoothly as he had hoped.

“Once I wake and come into this place, my mind is completely consumed,” he said. “It is a lot to take in, but dealing with new challenges every day is what keeps me going.”

Coffee is a necessity in an average-size college town such as Iowa City. With more than a dozen different coffee providers and a variety of consumers, each of the shops offer a different experience for customers. For Ward and the rest of High Ground crew, their goal is to bring back the enjoyable coffee shop experience to the North Side.

When the T. Spoons at the intersection of Linn and Market Streets closed, High Ground was a project Ward said he had no choice to but to jump on when the opportunity presented itself.

“My dad and I had been messing around with the idea to open a coffee shop in Iowa City for some time now,” Ward said. “Once the T. Spoons location opened up, I knew I had to get it, so I quit my job, got rolling, and now here I am, three months later.”

Ward’s journey into the coffee-shop business was one that took many detours into different professions, cities, and even countries along the way. After graduating from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and traveling to New Zealand to study abroad, he ended up in Iowa City. Between college and New Zealand, he had done everything from being a line cook for New Zealand caterers, bartending, and waiting tables in various establishments.

Putting the waiting gigs to the side, Ward decided to pursue a degree in biology and found a job at a quality-control lab in Davenport. After six months with this new job, Ward said, he realized biology was not for him — and High Ground began to become a reality.

Going from a career in the biology field to becoming a business owner overnight seemed drastic at the time, Ward remembers, but he soon realized that the transition would not be as challenging as he had guessed.

“In both instances, we are mixing, measuring, pouring, and experimenting with new substances, but in this case, it is in the hope of creating that perfect cup of coffee,” he said. “We might be overly critical on how we make coffee, but if you love it as much as we do, this is the place for you.”

The perfect cup of coffee, as with many coffee shops, was High Ground’s main focus during its three preparation months before opening. Ward and his staff spent countless days testing various kinds of equipment and types of coffee in search of the perfect flavor combination.

“High Ground is going to be able to satisfy every type of coffee drinker in Iowa City,” Ward said. “With that being said, however, we want to bring the atmosphere, for example, where locals can come in and gossip about the local on-goings or be a place where businesses can meet over coffee. I want to bring that local feel back to coffee shops.”

This “relaxed analytical” approach Ward wishes to take with his business is something he said he knew he wanted from the start. Ward said his employees are responsive to the new way of leadership, even some of his family members, who have been a part of this project from the beginning.

“At first I told him [Wes] that I wanted nothing to do with his new, mysterious business endeavor,” said sister and employee Teresa Ward. “Once things got rolling, I guess my attitude changed, and I figured this thing had a great chance of being successful.”

Along with selling the “perfect” cup of coffee, Ward said, he plans to offer increased food options, such as pastries, soups, and salads in a sort of “less complicated” version of Panera Bread.

“We want to be a coffee shop first and a café second,” Ward said. “We want our coffee to keep our customers coming back, with a slight snack to complement the drinks and your visit.”

Ward said he also plans to decorate the now-bare walls of High Ground with local art, rotating the featured artists every few months like a miniature gallery. He said he also hopes to bring more consumers to the North Side, whether to High Ground or other area businesses.

“The great thing about this side of town is the willingness of the business owners to work together,” says High Ground manager Jody Escobar. “We have been going to places around us asking for advice, and they have been coming over helping and allowing us to grow a large support system.”

Although the Iowa City community has numerous coffee and café options, Prairie Lights’ Times Club worker and self-described “special coffee wizard” Joshua Jarrott said some of them tend to focus more on quantity of customers rather than the quality of product. He said the focus on customer service and quality of product are what separate small local coffee shops from larger chains.

“I have worked at coffee shops that are corporations before, and the fact of the matter is that the quality of ingredients and brewing techniques are not first priority,” Jarrott said. “Having a mentality that focuses on working directly with local roasting businesses and not specializing our businesses to certain specific cliental is how we stay away from the corporation mindset.” 

Ward said High Ground will forgo this kind of “corporate mindset” for a more personal and mutually beneficial coffee shop.

“We want High Ground Café to be a new, fun place for people to try new things,” he said. “We opened this place to be very interactive for customers, and we want to bring the old friendly communication between us and customers back to local coffee shops.”

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