Cups Café serves coffee, hope and a lot of love

Tim Van Arsdale has created a place in Medina where young people facing a dark time in their lives can pause to catch their breath over a cup of coffee or a bowl of soup. Cups Café is a nonprofit community café at 126 N. Court Street that doesn’t need a cash register because everything on the menu is free.

“When a student comes in and sits down and says, ‘Tim, the café literally saved my life,’” says Van Arsdale, the café’s founder and executive director. “That’s when you’re like, ‘OK, this is a success. We’re having an impact.’ This guy was just released from jail with nothing and nowhere to go. He shows up here in the dead of winter with a T-shirt on. It literally saved his life. Our vision is to serve hope, one cup at a time.”

Cups Café first opened its doors in November 2007. Van Arsdale had to overcome plenty of doubt from those around him who didn’t think he could turn this leap of faith, this calling from God to create a free café, and turn it into a place that would save young lives.

“In the beginning, it was, ‘Oh, that’s a great idea, Tim. You go, Tim. But you’ll never open the doors,’” Van Arsdale says. “You have to push through those barriers and say, ‘I’m going to open the doors. Watch me.’ That drove me, the people who didn’t believe it. It was like inspiration. Then it was, ‘Good job, you did it. Wow. But it’s not going to last 18 months. You won’t stay open.’ So I pushed through that. We are going to stay open.’”

Nine years later, Cups Café is going strong. Van Arsdale serves about 60 customers a day and has a team of 55 volunteers that take two-hour shifts serving guests. He has built a network of churches and community groups and individuals that give Cups what it needs to fulfill its mission.

The menu includes coffee, tea and hot chocolate along with soup, sandwiches and bagels. In the summer, you can also get an ice cream sundae, a popsicle or a smoothie. But more important than what’s on the menu is the emotional and spiritual guidance that can help young people who feel like they have nowhere else to go.

“It’s a safe and comforting place,” Van Arsdale says. “It’s not a sterile soup kitchen. We try to fulfill our mission with a little warmth. We use real dishes, real coffee cups and we try to make it like a real café with music. There’s also a lounge in the back. That’s what keeps people coming back. I think they sense that God’s love is here. There are people in the world who care.”

A leap of faith
Faith has always been a big part of Van Arsdale’s life. He spent five years with Youth for Christ in Medina helping at-risk kids and partnering with other local nonprofits and he felt like he was making a difference. But he also felt like God wanted him to go in a new direction and do something even more impactful.

“We spent the first two years doing business plans, financial plans, strategic plans and doing fundraising,” Van Arsdale says. “I would speak to groups and do networking, all the things a small business startup would do.”

He also found an example of a free nonprofit café that had opened its doors and found success and that gave him confidence that he could do it too. All the planning and meetings and discussions were necessary, but they were not what got Van Arsdale excited to wake up every morning and take on the new day.

“I’m like a caged lion,” he says. “I just want to do it. Most small business owners don’t want to sit down and draft out a business plan or a strategic plan. They think they can just buy a coffee machine and sell coffee. But you do have to sit down and draft a plan. Because if you’re going to get people to buy into your vision and support you, they want to see that. It’s more for them than for you.”

There were plenty of times when Van Arsdale thought about quitting. And even after opening the café, there have been challenges to keep it going. It wasn’t until 2011 when the café had been in business for four years that he really started to feel comfortable that the business was establishing roots.

“I think the community just started to say, ‘I guess they are here to stay. So let’s get on board,’” he says. “It takes people a long time to believe and buy into your idea. After that, it’s like, we can’t control it anymore. You start turning down donations because you have no room for anything else.”

One more hurdle
Even after all that, there would still be another bump in the road that nearly derailed Van Arsdale’s dreams. In 2013, the café’s landlord ran into hard times and the building went to foreclosure and ultimately a sheriff’s sale.

“We went on a fundraising tear to try to buy the building,” he says. “It was tough and it was emotional. We raised all this support and then we lost at the auction.”

The future looked bleak. But Van Arsdale reached out to the person who had won the auction and explained what he had built. He made a connection and today, Van Arsdale owns the building.

“It was a difficult road, but it all turned out,” he says. “Sometimes it’s about wealth, but for me, it’s never been about that. For me, success is doing what you love and getting paid. If you’re able to do what you love and get paid for it, man, that’s cool.”