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Lantern Coffee Bar brings in roasters from across the country

There’s one inherent characteristic that makes Lantern Coffee Bar and Lounge special: the warm glow of the old building it’s located in.

That’s actually where the name comes from, owner Steve Wiltjer said. 

“We really wanted to create a warm, welcoming, inviting gathering space,” Wiltjer said. we wanted to create a place in Grand Rapids that did really good coffee but was also comfortable and approachable for anyone.

“We came up words around that idea and thought of an old gas lamp post or lantern on a street corner and it’s the safe place. The name came out of the that.”

The lower level of Lantern Coffee Bar & Lounge offers a variety of options for customers. Photo by Matt Radick

The lower level of Lantern Coffee Bar & Lounge offers a variety of options for customers. Photo by Matt Radick

Like most who love coffee, Wiltjer began heavily drinking coffee when he was at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. It wasn’t great coffee by any means, but it gave him a hang out, a gathering place that brought people together. 

He loved the community aspect of the coffee shop, and decided some day he’d create a place like it.

The dream went by the wayside for a bit, as he worked his way around coffees shops and took the first step in opening a place: learning more about good coffee. More so, he fell in love with it. 

“I was pushing ahead on my own, learned a little bit about growing, harvesting, processing and roasting, a little bit of everything that goes into it,” he said. “Finally, the time was right to start what I wanted to start, but with a much more ‘We’re going to do good coffee slant’ than I had imagined in college.”

Just prior to heading downtown in the Heartside District on Commerce Avenue, Wiltjer was managing a specialty shop in Ada’s Ninth Bridge Market. The closure of the market, and the coffee shop gave Wiltjer the final push he needed. 

With equipment coming at a bargain price, he opened a pop-up joint in some retail space in Ada.  But the Eastown resident longed to be downtown and found an the current spot on the first floor of the Grand Central Lofts, a new apartment complex opened in a 122-year-old building. 

Just a few blocks away, one of the world’s finest beer bars pours pint after pint. What Wiltjer tries to do with Lantern is a smaller scale coffee version of HopCat.

The shop’s house roaster comes from Bay City’s Populace Coffee. Wiltjer said Lantern generally carries whatever the roaster is offering. The shop offers a variety of brew styles, from Chemex to aeropress to pour over to already brewed and an assortment of espresso drinks.

Lantern offers pour over coffee, along with others such as Chemex and Aeropress, both can be seen in the foreground. Photo by Matt Radick

Lantern offers pour over coffee, along with others such as Chemex and Aeropress, both can be seen in the foreground. Photo by Matt Radick

“We wanted to do a couple different brewing methods just to play with some of [coffee’s] complexity and depth,” he said. “We can take a coffee and brew it a few ways. We’ve had the same coffee available as espresso and pour over and aeropress so that you can get it all three ways and see the different characteristics or the same notes that carry through.”

Although Wiltjer has a long-standing relationship with Populace, Wiltjer said he sees the value in bringing in other roasters. He will bring in the occasional Grand Rapids’ roaster, but mostly likes to avoid them in a respectful gesture.

“There are some roasters in town doing really amazing things,” he said. “But it’s their product and we don’t want to compete with that.”

So the owner of Populace helped Wiltjer on his way to various craft coffee brokers. Lantern has sense brought in some companies that he compares as “the Sierra Nevada or Sam Adams of coffees,” to little unknown roasters of the country, such as Wisconsin’s Ruby.

When Wiltjer started in the coffee world seven or so years ago, most people only knew the large, sugary versions of traditional drinks that coffee chains had made popular. The people “didn’t want to taste the espresso” and didn’t know the seed-to-cup process. 

But every day, Wiltjer, who still spends hours behind the counter, said he sees a new person interested in the process and ordering straight espresso or understanding the macchiato isn’t a big, sweet beverage, but one to showcase the espresso. 

He said he’s noticed people not all that into specialty coffee coming into Lantern and the other area specialty shops, simply to support a local product and business.

The coffee culture and knowledge in the city is constantly growing, and that plays in large part to MadCap. 

“They played the biggest role in that, opening up and pushed things a lot further than where people were,” Wiltjer said. “Introduced them to the world of really high-end specialty coffee; enjoying the coffee flavor instead of a bunch of sugar and milk.”

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