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No taste for liberals or coffeehouse layabouts

A cafe in Crown Point, Ind., serves up a conservative blend of java, politics and Midwestern values.

August 11, 2008|Stacy St. Clair | Chicago Tribune

CROWN POINT, IND. — From the moment customers enter the front door, A Conservative Cafe is serving up caffeinated doctrine.

Ann Coulter books sit stacked by the fireplace and a picture of President Reagan hangs on the wall. Fox News plays on all the televisions and stock market quotes scroll along an electronic ticker above the cash register.

Behind the counter, owner Dave Beckham smiled proudly in a T-shirt with the face of Uncle Sam on it that read "Zip It Hippie."

The T-shirt is for sale at the cafe. So are others, including one with a peace sign that says "Peace Through Superior Firepower."

"It's a change from the traditional liberal bastion coffeehouses," Beckham said. "No one is going to bad-mouth America in here."

Friends warned Beckham to stay away from the conservative theme before the cafe opened in October 2007. The former art teacher came up with the idea about five years ago, he said, after souring on Starbucks and other high-end coffee chains.

He didn't like piped-in folk music, specialty drinks with faux-Italian names or patrons who frittered the hours away on laptops or listening to iPods. The atmosphere, he said, seemed an affront to Midwestern values he learned growing up in northwest Indiana.

"Coffee shouldn't be about sitting in a cafe for 12 hours," Beckham said. "Coffee gets us through our workday. It's what we drink before we make steel for the rest of the country or head out into the fields."

His disdain for the coffee chains coincided with his fear of an erosion in national pride, so Beckham made plans to build an old-fashioned java joint near the Crown Point town square.

There were two Starbucks within three miles of the shop's location, but Beckham and his wife, Jill, were convinced his pro-U.S. decor and Indiana-roasted coffee would strike a chord with the community.

About six months after Beckham opened for business, Starbucks announced plans to close one of its Crown Point locations. Since then, Beckham has begun pondering franchise opportunities for his cafe.

He acknowledged that Starbucks' downturn stemmed from a sagging economy and the company's massive growth, but he thought his success proved that some people were turned off by traditional coffeehouse culture.

Crown Point resident Matthew McPhee is one of them.

McPhee doesn't feel comfortable in trendier coffeehouses, where he often doesn't agree with the political conversations. He prefers Beckham's cafe, where red, white and blue bunting hangs outside the brick building and patrons can buy T-shirts emblazoned with the face of Reagan that read, "Silly liberal . . . Paychecks are for Workers."

"I like it here," he said. "I don't have to worry about listening to beatnik poetry or some political ideology that makes me want to vomit."

McPhee usually orders a radical right blend, the cafe's strongest roast. The other blends are conservative, moderate and liberal -- the latter of which Beckham described as a "Colombian decaf with no substance."

The decor may poke fun at liberals, but Beckham said they were welcome in his establishment.

In the first few weeks after opening, he extended his operating hours to accommodate an ideologically mixed group of Hannity & Colmes fans, who wanted to watch the Fox News show and debate the topics.

What's more, Beckham's partner, Bill McCall, is a -- gasp! -- Democrat.

"Conservative doesn't mean you belong to a certain political party," McCall said. "It's a way of thinking. It goes beyond politics."

Beckham and McCall said they still weren't drawing paychecks from the cafe. But Bob Metz, the township's supervisor of commercial assessments, said the cafe had passed the six-month mark -- a time when many fledgling eateries faltered.

"It has a unique theme," Metz said. "But that's what keeps people coming back."

But the theme has raised some eyebrows. Although Crown Point tends to vote Republican, Democrats have a stronghold in the nearby Lake County government complex.

State Rep. Shelli VanDenburgh (D-Crown Point) learned just how controversial the cafe was when she decided to hold a fundraiser there this winter. A local reporter predicted she wouldn't make any money, and a few of her backers refused to attend on principle, she said.

VanDenburgh chose the cafe because she wanted to support a local business and she enjoyed the food, she said.

She also liked the decor, which in addition to Beckham's conservative flag-waving includes a poster of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a flag honoring Teddy Roosevelt's Bull Moose Party and Life magazine's famous photo of the V-J Day kiss in Times Square.

"It caused me a little bit of a problem, but people should get over it," she said. "It's only a name."

Even if the name turns off a few folks, Beckham thinks the moniker will help him much more than it will hurt.

"If I called it Dave's Cafe, no one would talk about it," he said. "There's nothing intriguing about that."

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