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A Cup of Community

    Michael Watson

How Julie McGuire pioneered coffee culture in Des Moines with Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure

**Disclaimer: Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure’s business has changed. The shop is currently open for carry-out and curbside pick-up only from Tuesday through Saturday.

Before there was a Starbucks on every corner and iced lattes were a part of everyday life, we primarily drank coffee at home. Even a few decades ago, Des Moines was nearly devoid of coffee shops.

But when Julie McGuire returned to Iowa from southern California, she brought a curiosity about coffee with her. In 1993, it was that curiosity that led her to open Zanzibar’s Coffee Adventure, a cozy shop along Des Moines’ Ingersoll Avenue that has since become a community staple.

When looking for a home for her coffee shop, McGuire was drawn to the residential, neighborhood feel of the Ingersoll commercial district. In a small space that was originally a hardware store and later a bakery, Zanzibar’s found its home. McGuire decorated the interiors based on her tastes at the time with a color palette that’s warm but not smothering and vibrant without being too shocking. With original tin ceilings, worn hardwood floors and towering potted plants, stepping inside Zanzibar’s feels comfortingly similar to returning to a well-loved family home.

After almost 30 years in business, only a handful of things about Zanzibar’s physical space have changed. Over the years McGuire has added the shop’s chalkboard menu, a display case in the corner, lamps made in Colombia, and a few new chairs here and there. But otherwise, Zanzibar’s has remained largely the same.

The same is true for the business itself. Established in Des Moines a decade before the city saw its first Starbucks, McGuire’s business ethos and commitment to the community are what have given Zanzibar’s staying power.

A bonsai approach to business

Since opening the shop, McGuire has honed her business philosophy, staying true to the things that she believes are important to hold above all else. At Zanzibar’s, that means valuing and paying attention to the little things.

“I have a very specific business philosophy,” McGuire says. “I take the bonsai approach to business—small and carefully tended. I pay attention to every detail, whether it’s in the beans I select or my decor in here. It’s what’s important to me.”

The shop’s roasting, for example, is done through a process based on look, smell, and sound. When it comes to choosing beans or varieties, McGuire trusts the relationships she’s built with vendors over the years. Keeping with her business philosophy, many of the beans roasted at Zanzibar’s are organic, fair trade, or certified as Smithsonian Bird Friendly. Like so many other parts of her business, McGuire’s roasting process is all about the roaster, who decides when the beans are done.

“It’s not right or wrong,” McGuire says. “It’s just what we do.” Like there are sommeliers who become experts in wine, McGuire says mastering the taste of coffee is an ever-developing experience.

The people who make up the team at Zanzibar’s are also an important part of that equation. In the early days of the business, McGuire’s father was the shop’s first employee and learned to roast coffee beans with her. Today, many of the shop’s employees have been long-time presences behind the counter. Not only have all of McGuire’s employees bought into the ethos of the coffee shop, but she believes they’re an essential part of the customer experience and she is committed to making sure they can live sustainably if working for her.

“It’s an atmosphere where [our team] feels connected to the people who come in and the experience of our way of making coffee creates something really genuine for them,” she says.

Coffee and conversation

While Zanzibar’s is far from Des Moines’ only coffee shop these days, there are few that match its atmosphere and sense of community. On weekdays and weekends alike, Zanzibar’s is a place you can walk in in your slippers and sweatpants and feel just as in place as the people in suits having a business meeting. It’s a place where people stop in to pick up “the usual,” a place where they meet, both intentionally and serendipitously.

It’s one of the reasons that the coffee shop intentionally doesn’t have WiFi. It forces Zanzibar’s customers to disconnect from their screens and interact with each other, promoting what McGuire values most—coffee and conversation. Being inside of the coffee shop takes you out of touch in a way that allows you to lose track of time. Closely arranged tables allow for a proximity to your neighbors that you can’t find many other places. Each of these choices are intentional ways McGuire makes sure her shop, and its customers, remain rooted in the community.

But that intangible is sometimes difficult to translate to the realities of small business ownership. For McGuire, the same piece that makes Zanzibar’s so successful is the thing that is, commercially, hard to define.

“The pieces that make my business work aren’t appealing to investors or bankers,” she says. “This is what they can’t see. I had to get people to believe in the experience and the things they can’t see that are going to make my business work.”

What you can’t see on paper is the community that exists within Zanzibar’s. The feeling of a neighborhood and customers melded together to create a space with a sense of community all its own.

After all, McGuire’s overall goal is to provide coffee that helps lift up a community.

“I want to make sure we’re doing this as long as people are enjoying it,” she says.

From the looks of the bustling coffee shop on any given Sunday morning, it looks like McGuire will be doing this for quite a while.


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