A native of Loraine, Texas, and a graduate of Sterling High School in Illinois, Steve Dean found his patch of nirvana on a lovely lot in the heart of Janesville.
It was back in 2002 that Dean and his wife, Kathy, first envisioned what could become of 1121 Center Ave. In the 18 years since they purchased the property, the couple—joined by a smattering of friends and famly—have diligently toiled to transform the unassuming property into Mocha Moment, a highly popular and award-winning coffee house and bakery.
At Mocha Moment, patrons can enjoy their baked goods and beans while communing with nature that is purposefully preserved. Lush greenery is peppered with beautiful plantings, and nearby trails and water add to the tranquility that pairs nicely with a tasty cup of joe.
Dean treasures the environment, and he makes sure his business goes to great lengths to nurture its surroundings.
“Raised on a farmette, I was environmentally conscious long before it became vogue,” Dean said. “We daily create more than a 5-gallon pail of coffee grounds—which are high in nitrogen—so all grounds go on flower beds and gardens. Food scraps and fruit cuttings make their way to compost piles. Our several-dozen egg cartons per week are stacked for a customer with a farmers market egg production. Our bubble wrap is taken to a local shipping facility for reuse.”
In addition to Steve and Kathy, the Dean family includes five children between the ages of 26 and 38 (all spaced exactly three years apart). The three middle children work at Mocha Moment.
To learn more about the Deans and the history of Mocha Moment, visit MochaMoment.com.
1. So ... how do you take your coffee? Dark and black.
2. What made you decide to get into the coffee business? Having several advantages—our children at working age, a small-business heritage, kitchen skills, a hospitality history, and an eye for remarkable third spaces—we considered it a workable endeavor.
3. You are a former teacher at Oakhill Christian School in Janesville. What do you miss most/least about teaching? Excited to see students every day, I still teach three high school classes each afternoon. I relish the daily challenge to engage students and to make classroom magic appear.
4. You and your wife, Kathy, performed during the local version of “Dancing With the Stars” at the Janesville Performing Arts Center in 2013. Is dancing a hobby? Kathy and I met when we were 18 and fell for each other, hard. She said, “There’s two things I want to do— bike (bicycle) and dance.” We still do both—a lot. For decades, the Butterfly has been our Saturday night hangout. It has great live bands and a dance floor in its ‘70s-style lounge.
5. What was your favorite childhood toy? A baseball glove, ball and bat. We played baseball for hours every day.
6. Do you believe in karma? I believe there are common and natural laws of human nature that are less precise and more general, but just as certain as gravity: sowing and reaping, what goes around comes around, etc.
7. You and other members of your family have an extensive amount of sweat equity in the actual construction of Mocha Moment. Was that mainly to keep down costs, or was it just important for all of you to have that personal investment in the project? Not canoeing in cash, we lowered costs by doing as much work as possible ourselves. For instance, longtime friend and general contractor Ben Hughes kept costs down by having me do such things as pulling permits and chasing materials. Several friends contributed a week’s work. Two retired friends labored all three months until completion. We started framing on Oct. 3 (2002) and opened Jan. 13 (2003). Not too shabby.
8. On your website, you talk about the young people who work for you at Mocha Moment and how much they mean to you. Obviously they get jobs. Aside from labor, what do you get from employing them? Just being around these stellar young people assures me that good and worthy Americans are still taking their places in our amazing country—just as they always have. It is rewarding to provide them a happy and good place to work and grow and to feel that I have been a valuable part of their journey.
9. Say you’re counting calories. Name one item at Mocha Moment you would gladly spend another 30 minutes on the treadmill to make up for eating. Understanding that “30 minutes on the treadmill” is just an expression, because it’s mostly “what you eat,” I enjoy two bakery treats per week. My favorites: a caramel apple scone on Saturday mornings, and a pumpkin muffin on Sundays.
10. Sudoku, word search, crosswords or something else? Do you enjoy games such as those, or do you prefer something else to help keep your mind sharp? I have a digital subscription to the New York Times. I work its daily, digital crossword puzzle. Otherwise, I read several Times and Wall Street Journal articles per week. Mostly, I read books on my Kindle—at least a couple per month.
11. Share the single best piece of advice you have ever received. Love conquers hate. Light casts out darkness. Forgiveness liberates the wronged. Generosity trumps greed. Kindness prevails over injury. Gentleness mitigates anger. Empathy secures loyalty. Patience overcomes anxiety. Hope triumphs over despair. Meekness undermines pride. Thankfulness stymies discontent. Goodness strengthens your hand. Deeds leverage words. Why? That’s how life works.
12. People would be surprised to know that I: Created, maintain and continuously extend a vast heritage website: deanvegter.org. My parents weren’t hoarders, but they saved priceless photos and documents from distant family history. I was early intrigued with stories and exploits of bygone generations. I projected that if I used photos and documents to tell family stories, even young nephews and nieces would show interest. Several have used my site for school genealogy assignments. Many unknown and distant cousins have found my site and supplied me with yet more material.
13. What inspired you to institute your Sunday Benefits program at Mocha Moment? During our first year, a customer said, “Why don’t you open on Sunday. I’ll help, and we can give the proceeds to ECHO.” We set our pattern on the first benefit: open four hours, from 7:30 to 11:30 a.m. But instead of proceeds, we donate 100% of gross sales, plus donations. Staff donates time, Kathy and I donate food, and customers donate money. To date, our benefits have generated more than $110,000.
14. Your grandfather and his three brothers founded, owned and operated Hey Bros. Dairy and Ice Cream Company more than 100 years ago in Sterling, Illinois. Since 2014, Mocha Moment has been selling its own ice cream made from scratch. What made you decide to continue the family tradition? I grew up on Hey Brothers Ice Cream. I’m quite proud of the business and brand. Since junk food was strictly prohibited, and Mother allowed as much ice cream as we wanted, I must have been 20 years old before it occurred to me that ice cream was not on the same food pyramid tier as fruits and vegetables. It was simply “in me” to make ice cream. Since we are a “drink place,” it is natural to use Mocha Moment ice cream to make malts and shakes.
15. Do you have any hobbies? Having grown up with a large garden, I take pride in raising delicious vegetables. A bit back, I mentioned that Kathy wanted to both bike and dance. Every year we take our bikes somewhere on the Amtrak, ride a good ways for a few weeks and return from another city. Last year, we rode the Hudson Valley and Long Island, visiting dozens of historical and cultural sites en route. For instance, in Stockbridge, we saw the Hancock Shaker Village, Herman Melville’s summer home, and the studios and homes of Norman Rockwell and Daniel Chester French (Lincoln Memorial sculptor). Two years ago, we biked 600 miles from Portland, Maine, to Manhattan. Our bike trip slideshows are open to the public on Vimeo.
16. Since you first opened Mocha Moment, what have you found to be the greatest challenge to maintaining a small business? Without hesitation, hiring and maintaining the best staff. Difficult employees give any owner a constant migraine. Our stellar staff makes Mocha Moment appear to run itself.
17. Do you own any other businesses? Have you ever considered opening another shop? Mocha Moment is the only business we own. Hundreds of customers have asked us if we’d open a shop on Janesville’s east or north side. My standard response: If I were 40, I’d consider it. But at my age, I don’t want yet more responsibilities.
18. Enjoying a relaxing cup of coffee isn’t just about the taste, it’s about your surroundings. What steps have you taken to make sure Mocha Moment provides a relaxing experience for customers? We spend considerable time and money to create the lush surroundings that give Mocha Moment its “cabin in the north woods” feel. The phone never rings at Mocha Moment—we don’t have one. Consider this common irony: Customers staring at the stereotypical “No. 1 in customer service” sign, hanging behind a clerk answering the phone, while they wait to check out. Also, there’s no “ya just gotta have this banner,” so Mocha Moment exudes a “homey, soft ambience.” The money box for self-serve coffee flavors Mocha Moment with the neighborhood, general store-feel of a bygone era.
19. Name a skill you wish you had. Cartooning. Especially because I teach high school, I’ve often wished I could draw quick, simple cartoons. But I’ve never taken the time to learn the basics.
20. Is your glass half full or half empty? Life, family, America and Janesville have been good to me. Laws of human nature favor “half-full” mindsets. Sowing and reaping. Seeing the good in students, staff, customers, neighbors and family produces far better effect than first noticing “what they didn’t do right.”
Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.