There is certainly an Iowa morality. Right? You know the basics: don’t toot your own horn when you win an award for best stocker at Hy Vee; don’t yell at someone just because they cut in front of you at the buffet line (they must have their reasons); be polite to strangers who are visiting from out of town even though they don’t realize we don’t talk that loudly or step that closely to each other. When I think about it, our morality is an old-fashioned rural morality in a state that is no longer really rural. But it works.
As we speak, there is an Iowa morality play occurring in downtown Des Moines. Surrounded by Goliaths on all sides — Wellmark to the north, Meredith to the west, Nationwide to the south, and Principal to the east — and tucked into the middle of a small block, is an oasis of Iowa life: Ritual Cafe. When you glance from the outside, the windows reflect only the large downtown buildings. The inside, however, beckons.
You open the door to an amazing blast of light and color and funkiness. Oh, and by the way, great lattes.
Local artists hang their paintings from the walls. Photographs grace the interior. Prayer flags and rainbow colors are hung throughout the cafe. And posted on multiple surfaces are the upcoming music acts soon to perform on the small stage in the corner.
Who creates such a joyfully raucous place? Enter from the wings — Linda and Denise — business partners for seven years. I want to tell you about Denise (Linda will have to be a story for another day).
Denise is one of seven children. Raised in the Valley Junction area of West Des Moines (when her grandfather was offered four pennies more than his last job, he came to work for the railroad in Iowa), she spent 12 years in the Catholic School system and then packed her bags. Off she went to San Francisco. For just nine months, she thought. Oops. Nine years later, she returned to Des Moines. Going to several different Iowa colleges, she earned her keep by learning the barista business. Years passed.
Linda and Denise decide to open a coffee shop and vegan eatery in Des Moines. A dream. Totally impossible, they thought. Amazingly, all the loans were approved, the perfect building was found — and then tragedy. The city closed the only access road. And at that time they were surrounded, not by mega-insurance groups, but empty lots, torn-up buildings, drifting street people, and a shattered dream. Hard times.
Denise’s mantra is simple: you have to dream and do — you have to dream and do — you have to dream and do. And that’s what she did. And they survived.
Today, one could argue, Ritual Cafe sits in the center of the most lucrative business location in Downtown Des Moines. Not only surrounded by big business, but it is plopped right in the middle of the Sculpture Garden, the Pappajohn Center, and the new Public Library. Dreaming and doing — Denise’s mantra paid off.
Which is not what I want to talk to you about.
Denise is shy, self-effacing, and normally in the background at the business. She and Linda’s wonderful staff joke and laugh and yell greetings to one and all. Denise, however, stays in the shadows. Her broad smile and sparkling eyes welcome — but she vanishes from the scene. What’s going on?
Denise’s mom has been quite ill. Open-heart surgery. Stroke. She has needed help — hands-on type help. Denise quietly stepped up. She cut back her hours at Ritual, she changed her personal life, and helps her mom. Period. Oh yeah, Denise told me “I pray a lot.”
There’s no fanfare for this service. No signs posted at Ritual that Denise is off taking care of her mom. No request for donations for the Pity Denise Bus. This is Iowa morality. Low key. Gentle. But a backbone of iron. Heavy on the “doing” portion of her mantra, wouldn’t you say?