Story and photo by BRITTNI STRICKLAND
Anna Whitnack sits at a gray table listening to the whir of blenders, ringing timers and the laughter of customers. The smell of brewing coffee fills Jessie Jean’s Coffee Beans and Homestyle Café, the shop she owns in Roy, Utah. Whitnack recounts her journey as a local business owner.
Growing up in California, Whitnack and her friends would always go out to coffee shops rather than bars. But Whitnack didn’t think it was realistic to ever start her own business. “You think you have to have so much to put up and I never thought it would be a possibility because I thought it was beyond who I was,” she said. Then, after moving to Utah when she was 25, a friend encouraged her to go after what Whitnack thought of as a “pipe dream.” She gained the courage to bring her own recipes for pastries, burgers, sandwiches, smoothies and a variety of coffee flavors to the 37,000 people of Roy, Utah.
Whitnack opened Jessie Jean’s Coffee Beans on Nov. 1, 2000, but becoming an entrepreneur didn’t turn out to be so easy. Whitnack decided late in 2013 that times were just too tough and she and her partner were going to have to close the shop.
They planned to tell employees the news at an early Christmas dinner. When the time came at the end of the meal, Whitnack just couldn’t find it in her to tell the employees that Jessie Jean’s Coffee Beans would soon be closed.
She told herself she would try to last as a local business for just one more month.
Each month she found herself saying the same thing. With increased support from local patrons, things began looking up and now, two years later, Whitnack is still serving customers.
Though there have been tough times, caring customers and the small, family-like group of employees have made it worthwhile for Whitnack. She looks at a wall covered with notes, photos, and obituaries from loyal customers. “This is our life, this is our family, our friends, our social network, our hearts,” she said, while wiping away her tears with a napkin from the table.
Phil Wagner, a Salt Lake City local who makes an hour-long drive north on his motorcycle to Roy simply to indulge in the food, said, “I think this is a great place. It kind of has that ‘ma and pa’ feel to it. Just down home and good food.”
Ron Ford, co-owner of Jessie Jean’s Homestyle Café, said the two became business partners after a unique experience. He and his son, Bryan, had been living in a neighborhood home behind the café. Whitnack said with a laugh that Bryan would play next door in the parking lot when he was 4 years old. Occasionally he would go into Jessie Jean’s and ask if there was any sort of service he could do to get a hot chocolate. He would always run around saying things like, “I’m going to work here someday.”
Right then Bryan, who is now 15, walked up to the table and said, “And guess what? I work here.” Bryan has worked at Jessie Jean’s for two years.
Unlike his son, Ford had never visited the café until he read a sign out front that caught his eye — “Bodacious Burgers.” Ford isn’t sure why he had never stopped in during the eight years of living nearby. But once he finally ate there, he continued to frequent the shop. Over time he developed a relationship with Whitnack, which later led to them co-owning the local coffee shop.
The two firmly believe in supporting other local businesses, because they know what it’s like to be one. If a business in the area does not have the supplies it needs, Whitnack and Ford encourage friends, family and customers to support the owners in the surrounding areas.
Ford and Whitnack said owning a local business and trying to survive from month to month is difficult. Ford advised people thinking of starting their own business, “Don’t take no for an answer, don’t let them get you down and if you have a dream, go get it.”
Whitnack added, “Fight as hard as you can fight and don’t ever go into business thinking you’re going to be rich. If you’re going into it to make money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
Several customers paused at the table, touched her shoulder and said hello. Whitnack smiled and greeted them by name. Gazing around the room, she said, “It’s hard and stressful, but there are the moments in the kitchen and we’re super busy and we’re crazy and [Ford is] playing drums on the pans,” Whitnack said. “Those are the moments where you stop and you’re like, OK this is good.”