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Spiritual brews at new Main Street coffee house

Main Street gained another coffee shop in April, and this time there's more brewing inside the renovated storefront than just fragrant coffee beans.

"We're trying to represent the tremendous love of God," said the Rev. Jeremy Tuinstra, whose church, Redemption Community Church, owns Ragamuffins Coffee House at 385 Main St.

Tuinstra said the new business's name was inspired by Brennan Manning's book, "The Ragamuffin Gospel," which describes the "beaten, bedraggled and burnt out" members of God's flock as spiritual ragamuffins and recipients of His love and grace.

At Ragamuffins on Main Street, Tuinstra said, everyone is welcome.

"Community is our first product; after that we bring [handcrafted] coffee," he said.

Redemption Community Church, formerly Covenant Presbyterian Church, purchased the property in 2015 from Firoozhe Zafari.

The small congregation intended to use the dwelling as a place of worship as well as a coffee house. The congregation thought it "would be helpful to our city to have another business come in and invest well," Tuinstra said.

A few weeks later, challenges surfaced with changes to the requirements for the use of properties within the C-V or commercial village zone. Using the space as a commercial nonprofit, or as a gathering space for a house of worship, was not allowed without costly special exceptions.

The interior was a big, open rectangle, Tuinstra said, "a blank slate that we could do whatever we wanted to with." The church family opted to create a for-profit coffee house similar to Ebeneezers Coffee House, in Capitol Hill, owned by the National Community Church.

City staff worked with church members to ensure compliance with regulations while preserving the ministry's vision and goals, according to Sara Green, the city's Community Development Coordinator.

During the two years that went into designing and constructing the rustic modern architecture, the planning team visited around 50 coffee houses in surrounding areas and several coffee roasters.

Tuinstra said Julio Pereira, of Walden Studio Architects in Columbia, "understood our vision [of a welcoming space] and helped us to grow it out physically."

All the decisions they made — down to choosing finishes and furnishings — were intended to encourage people to "sit down, slow down and reconnect," he said.

"[Pereira] would get teary-eyed talking about it," Tuinstra said.

In early April, Tuinstra quietly peeled back the paper on the storefront's windows to "see what the community's response would be."

"We were aiming for a silent opening," he said. "And we discovered how the glass made our space beautiful; the trees, the sky, the traffic, the bank across the street were all new to us."

Leigha Steele, the city's economic development coordinator, said the new shop "shows how buildings in the historic district can be given a new life and purpose."

Katie Franklin, a church member who manages the coffee house, said reception has been "really good."

Ragamuffins comfortably seats 49 people on the main level with additional meeting space downstairs. Parking on the street, particularly in the evening, is easily accessed and there are seven dedicated spaces in the back.

A yogi has inquired about using the downstairs to teach yoga classes; a mobile company marketing team may conduct staff training there; and the coffee house is offering use of the space to nonprofits at modest rates. Tuinstra said the City Council has mentioned meeting at Ragamuffins for coffee.

Ragamuffins Coffee House has created eight new jobs in Laurel; business has been brisk enough to reach the church's six-month goal of covering staff costs early.

Robert DiGiovanni, 33, said he was drawn in on a recent Saturday afternoon by the string of modern Edison light bulbs in birdcage-shaped wire fixtures hanging in the front window.

"I got a little cold brew and a chocolate croissant," DiGiovanni said. "It's pretty good."

"This is very cozy; it gives me the feeling of the coffee houses in Adams Morgan," said Melissa Diggs, 48, who discovered Ragamuffins through an Internet search for a new place to meet a friend for coffee.

Katy Wnuk, 17, came in to get out of the rain while dress shopping with her friend, Julia Williams, 15. The girls said their cappuccinos were "really good" and Wnuk said she liked the "minimalistic and comfy" atmosphere.

Ragamuffins gets its coffee from La Colombe Coffee Roasters headquartered in Philadelphia. Fresh pastries are sourced from Stone Mill Bakery and bagels from Bottoms Up Bagels in Baltimore; the Misfit Juices for sale are bottled in Elkridge.

The menu is limited, Tuinstra said, "to keep the Health Department happy."

A father of eight, Tuinstra moved from Washington State to Laurel with his family 15 years ago to serve as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Burtonsville, where he worked extensively with homeless people.

Four years ago, Covenant Presbyterian changed its name to Redemption Community Church and became nondenominational because, Tuinstra said, "our concern for the poor felt a little out of place."

"Churches can be fortresses," he said. "I would stand up and preach about loving our neighbors and I didn't know mine."

In December 2015, Redemption sold its church building on Sandy Spring Road to Trinity Reformed Presbyterian Church and began searching for a new home inside the Laurel city limits, where it planned to maintain a six- to seven-day a week presence.

Coffee house trend

In concept, Ragamuffins Coffee House was the first of three new coffee houses to appear in response to the city's plans to revitalize Main Street. More Than Java Cafe opened in June 2015, and Sip at C Street Flats opened last August.

More Than Java owner Tabitha Clark said she attributes the trend to an evolving Main Street. Her family-owned and operated cafe offers a full lunch menu, she said, and has been well received; she sees Ragamuffins as a neighbor.

"Having that outreach, being a church first, I think is great," Clark said. "I think it's good for Main Street."

Sip, just off Main Street on C Street, serves espresso drinks, coffee, beer and wine; offers a breakfast and lunch menu; and bakes its pastries and bagels in-house Sip general manager Joe Valentino said the three coffee houses offer unique experiences and each contributes to a "vibrant downtown life."

"A cafe is unique in that it becomes a familiar, comfortable place where people can gather to feel in community with each other," Valentino said. "I think each of us accomplishes that."

Jan Able, secretary/treasurer of the Laurel Board of Trade, headquartered next door to Ragamuffins, said the newest coffee house is "lovely" and that no one seems to feel there are too many in Laurel.

"They're all very different; there's enough of a market that they should all do well," she said.

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