Amy Brehm: Coffee and Conversation


Adult coloring clubs and Bible studies are welcome in Amy Brehm’s Java Joe’s coffee houses. So are fans of country music and fans of heavy metal. And so, too, are Democrats and Republicans. In the true spirit of a community coffee house, Java Joe’s is all about bringing people together and facilitating conversation.

“It wasn’t the coffee that was my interest,” admits Brehm, who bought the iconic Java Joe’s in Des Moines’ Court Ave. entertainment district with her husband, Tim, in 2007. “I like to be around people. I like to talk to people. I like to be the one that is inviting people in; I like to be the hostess.”

And in 2008, after less than year in the coffee house business – on the heels of 12 years spent as a stay-at-home mom to four kids – Brehm (’92 fine arts) found herself playing host on what is arguably the nation’s biggest stage. A fledgling MSNBC morning program, “Morning Joe,” was denied a spot at the media center during the Iowa Caucuses. But hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski were determined to cover the caucuses in Iowa. That’s when the Brehms stepped in and agreed to make Java Joe’s the program’s home base in the state.

The move paid off – not only for Java Joe’s, but for Scarborough and Brzezinski. The unique environment and show format attracted attention – most notably from legendary “Meet the Press” host Tim Russert, who would end up passing away later that year. Russert was watching the “Morning Joe” broadcast from the comparatively stuffy media center and quickly deemed Java Joe’s the place to be. Russert grabbed his coat, took off walking toward Java Joe’s, breezed through the tall entryway, asked Brehm for a bagel (“He didn’t even want it toasted or anything,” Brehm remembers), and sat down to give “Morning Joe” what Brzezinski would later describe as a “literal blessing.”

To this day, Scarborough and Brzezinski gratefully cite Java Joe’s as the springboard for their show’s success.

“Morning Joe” has been back to Java Joe’s every election cycle since. So has “Today,” “Andrea Mitchell Reports,” and “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” Brehm and her family have rubbed elbows with a slew of NBC News reporters and presidential candidates including Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, Chris Dodd, Ben Carson, and yes – even Donald Trump, who Brehm says was nice enough to “fake fire” her The Apprentice-loving teen daughters and whose son, Donald Jr., gave her kids some heartfelt advice about growing up in a family business.

It isn’t always easy being at the center of political debate, Brehm admits, grimacing as she sits under a glossy framed photo of Trump affixed to the restaurant’s brick wall and tapping a fingernail at the “F— Trump” that’s been carefully carved by a customer into the tabletop beneath it.

In 2012, a video of Brehm kicking “Occupy” protesters out of Java Joe’s went viral. She says she was a little embarrassed when she received notes of praise and even monetary contributions from fellow small business owners. Brehm says she wasn’t trying to make a political statement; she was just thinking of her customers.

“We know everybody has their opinion, and we definitely want people to come here and voice that – but in a respectful way,” Brehm says. “They come here to see the candidates and hear about what’s going on. That’s what we enjoy about it – seeing all the different sides; everybody’s in the conversation. But for me, I’m honestly just thinking about the camera guys or the guy out in the [production] truck who doesn’t get to come inside; does he need something to eat or drink?”

At the end of the day, Brehm feels like she and her family have succeeded in creating a welcoming and inclusive environment at Java Joe’s, and all her businesses – she not only owns the original Java Joe’s, but also two other locations in Des Moines and a soon-to be-opening Java Joe’s in her hometown of Dubuque, as well as CJ’s Bagels/Topped Doughnuts in Ankeny. Brehm also operates the 4th Street Theater adjacent to Java Joe’s, which has become a favorite performance space in the area for lecturers, comics, musicians, and even poetry slams. The band Switchfoot once played an impromptu after-show at Java Joe’s following a concert in Wells Fargo Arena. (“They just tweeted out that they were going to Java Joe’s and then there they were, sitting in a big circle with their guitars,”Brehm remembers. “We love for people to be able to come in and do that.”)

Brehm says it’s exciting to have actors, comedians, musicians, politicians, and pundits walk through her doors on a regular basis, and she’s made lifelong friends with customers from all walks of life and political ideologies – but they’re ultimately just customers to whom she wants to provide a good experience.

“We just like having people here,” she says. “I don’t get all star-struck. When Joe Biden walks in, he sits down and he talks to me. We’re just two people who do two different things for a living, and we just welcome him.”

It’s a philosophy – and a business model – that’s uniquely Iowan.

“I’m just so proud to be from Iowa,” Brehm says. “This is where the roots are; this is where we started.”

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