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Spring 2011

Coffee house offers 'big city taste, hometown feel'

by Rachel Coleman

When Spencer Browne's customers walk into the glass-fronted coffee shop in Liberal, it's easy to see why they might feel they've stepped through a portal to an urban establishment. A curved-front glass case displays handmade chocolates, freshly-baked pastries — and sushi. The rich aroma of fresh espresso coffee permeates the air. Patrons perch on bar stools or lounge in cushiony arm chairs, laptops aglow with wi-fi data.
Then the counter helper greets you with a friendly "hello," and you know you're still in Kansas.

"That's what we wanted, when we came up with our motto," said co-owner Mr. Shannon Francis. "We wanted that big city taste with the hometown feel."

Francis, along with his wife Carol, and family friend Susan Lukwago, opened Spencer Browne's toward the end of 2009. The trio's aim was to create a "home away from home" for every customer.

"That's what I remember most about my college days," Carol Francis said. "For our generation, a lot of time was spent in coffee houses, which were dark, grungy places … but they carried a lot of good memories." Now the parents of a high school senior, the Francises seek out such evocative dining spots when they travel as a family.
"We love to go out to eat," Carol said, "and for several years, we'd had this idea to give it a try in Liberal."

The plan-making phase of the venture was fun, Lukwago said: "You know what research means? We had to go places and patronize coffee houses and eat and drink. It was fun."

As the dream began to materialize in the form of hard labor at the shop location, though, "we sometimes wondered what we'd gotten into," Lukwago recalled. Still, all three were sure a community Liberal's size could support a coffee house, if it was the right kind of coffee house.

"The customer base was always going to be the college students and the people who came back to live in Liberal after getting their education somewhere else," said Lukwago. "But that slice would not be enough. We had to make an effort to draw in more people."

That's why, Carol Francis said, "you can send any of your children to Spencer Browne's, and never find anything that will be offensive. It's a place that feels safe."

It's also a place that is child-friendly. A miniature table and chairs stands next to a bookcase stocked with reading material for all ages. A small wagon stuffed with imaginative toys is parked nearby.

"I want young mothers to be able to come in here to sit down, visit with friends, and have that breathing space," Carol said. "And I love it when I see families here together."

The evening the owners noticed a young father and mother reading "Goodnight Moon" to their toddler, Lukwago said, "Carol cried. That was what she was hoping this place would become, all along."

Spencer Browne's easygoing inclusiveness extends to Liberal's ethnically and socially diverse population.

"I want customers to think of us as open," said Carol Francis. "And I don't just mean in terms of 'for business,' but as really open to who they are and what they need. It's about their convenience and comfort."

Business people starting the 9-to-5 day stop in for power coffee as early as 6:30 a.m. on weekdays. Hispanic customers give a nod of approval to the chipotle breakfast burrito, also popular with Anglo diners. Indian-style chai tea is favored by Somalian and Burmese immigrants who find their way to Spencer's. Across the board, Thai soup over rice is the favorite soup of the day. Vegetarians, health food fans and gluten-intolerant folks are given due consideration, but so are the meat-and-potatoes crowd, who won't be criticized for ordering a bag of chips rather than the lunch counter's chunky, fresh fruit cup or leafy green side salad.

Behind the scenes, general manager Elaine Fitzgerald bakes the raspberry white chocolate scones, assembles sandwiches and delivers the soup of the day to the counter hot and fresh. Amid it all, she trains young baristas to mix the perfect cappuccino or latte, whip up fresh fruit smoothies and frappes, and make change.

"We rely on her, and we couldn't do it without her," said Lukwago, who often dons an apron to help out on the food line. Very little at Spencer Browne's is pre-made and nothing is deep-fried. Workers assemble each sandwich from scratch.

"Our goal is to make it easy for people to eat healthy," Lukwago said. "We'll make it taste good and make it possible to have healthy, delicious food."

Offering such fare from "a menu featuring things that you couldn't get anywhere else in Liberal," said Shannon Francis, was the original goal for the business owners.

"It was almost a 'Field of Dreams, build it and they will come' idea," added Carol Francis.

A bit more than a year after Spencer Browne's opened its doors, that approach seems to have worked. A constant stream of laptop-toting college students and high schoolers fills the booth and table space in the modest-sized restaurant, but they're not the only regulars. Retirees often while away the morning with a visit at Spencer Browne's.

Carol Francis is particularly pleased by the multigenerational popularity of the the establishment, since it takes its name from her great-great-grandmother, Elmira Spencer Browne. She was, a brochure on display at the shop states, an early pioneer in Seward County, having moved west with her five children after her husband died. Spencer-Browne helped establish country schools in Seward County. The onetime overseer of local education would no doubt enjoy the sight of the study groups that meet at the coffee shop.

They're not the only ones. Spencer Browne's has welcomed a variety of groups to its private, glassed-in meeting room, and its open cafe space. Knitters gather every other week to use the meeting room; so do home school parents, bridge players, church groups, exercise partners, even, once, a baby shower. The coffee house has also hosted poetry readings and a variety of music sessions, from guitar-and-vocal folk to classical music on viola and a band or two.

"We don't schedule things that often," said Shannon Francis. "It's more a matter of people coming to us, and us saying, 'here's the stage.'" It's amazing, he added, to hear how much local talent flies under the radar.

But there's a lot that's amazing about the coffee house and the community, said his wife.

"We are so privileged to be doing what we're doing," she said. "I've gotten to witness friendships being formed, new ideas taking hold in the community, people getting excited about what they can do when they work together."

In that, Shannon Francis added, Spencer Browne's is a great example of how "great groups of people can perform great things. The more we operate our business, the more we see that behind the counter and in our customers."

Spencer Browne's coffee house is located at 7 Village Plaza, just south of the Kansas Ave.-15th Street intersection in Liberal. Their phone number is 626-5556. Spencer Browne's can also be found on Facebook.


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