By Darwin Manning
There are few who know Grinnell and its people as well as the owner of Saints Rest. Jeff Phelps ’71 grew up in Grinnell, attended Grinnell College and has delivered a reliable source of caffeine to the town of Grinnell for the last thirteen years. Phelps began working as a businessman with a wine and beer shop, moving on to coffee in 1999.
His desire to attend Grinnell College came not just from its financial resources or academic excellence, but its reputation for being a heavily activist institution. Phelps, while not getting along very well with his adviser, loved several other professors during his time as a student. One favorite was Professor Alan Nasser, Philosophy, who he described as extremely radical and fun to talk to. Professor Nasser would assign an A to anyone who showed up to class.
“My major was psychology and my adviser is no longer living, but wasn’t really much of an adviser. After I took my first test and got a C+, over a martini he told me that I would be better served in a junior college somewhere,” said Phelps. “I walked out of his office, learned how to forge his signature and never talked to him again.”
After college, Phelps worked for a plant breeding company, enjoying his work until he received word from a coworker that his boss was negatively influencing local pollination. Phelps confronted his employer and was told that he should silence his concerns, because who would the company believe: the station manager or some low-level employee? This exchange convinced Phelps to leave the business. Five years later, the company fired his former manager.
Phelps felt uncertain about where to head next. On a fateful trip to Dubuque, Phelps sat with his wife on a ledge overlooking a body of water and he discussed this conundrum with her.
“She knew I had an interest in wine, so she suggested that I start a wine shop. Iowa had just privatized wine, and so I said okay, maybe I will,” Phelps said. “The impotence really came from leaving one job, and floundering for a few months trying to decide what to do.”
In the spring of 1986, Phelps opened a wine shop on Main Street. When beer was privatized a year later, his business expanded. In 1999, he decided to switch to coffee. The original location of Saints Rest was the south half of what is now Bikes to You. In 2007, Saints Rest moved next door to their current location.
“It certainly wasn’t my intent, but I love the college and community so much that it just seemed like a natural place to do something,” Phelps said.
Saints Rest has grown swiftly over the past thirteen years and has become a fixture for Grinnell as a place of refuge, a workspace and occasionally home to live entertainment. The Too Many Strings Band and Jon Eric performed this Wednesday. Some student performers, like Grinnell’s own Will Bennett ’13, perform at Saints Rest as well.
However, given plans to move the business to new ownership, Phelps has not been booking a lot of bands.
“I don’t want to extend out too far and promise them that they have a gig without being assured of what the future will bring,” he said.
Phelps let on that he is working to find a new manager, which has nothing to do with the current finances of the business. There are currently three possible suitors and discussions have been held with each.
“If it’s not sold by when I turn seventy, I’m just going to walk away,” Phelps said.
“We’ve only had one or two extended vacations in twenty-eight years, and we get our three and four day vacations, but we’d like to travel, I’ve only briefly been to Canada.”
Another Grinnell coffeehouse establishment that is in transition is Bob’s Underground.
According to Phelps, he has reached out to students, letting them know that he would help in terms of writing business plans or staff training. However, Phelps does think that the campus favorite needs a bit of restructuring.
“From what I’ve seen in the past Bob’s is just pretty loosey-goosey and when you have a beautiful espresso machine underutilized, I think that’s a shame,” Phelps said. “I don’t think you can make it profitable, but certainly there are things that could change to make it more successful.”
On a lighter note Phelps revealed that his favorite coffee right now is Tanzanian Peaberry and Graybeard’s Blend, and that he leans to the lighter roasts.
“My favorite changes from week to week, but the one I always go back to is the Tanzanian Peaberry; it has really nice acidity levels, and all around is a really nice complex cup of coffee,” he said. “But I’m willing to stand by anything we have here.”