Coffee House Without Limits
It sounds like the plot to a romantic comedy, but Billy Mack really was on tour with his band when he fell in love with a little coffee shop in South Dakota, and it really did change the course of his life.
It was called The Red Rooster Coffee Shop, and as soon as Billy walked through its doors, he felt at home. “We ended up having a show at The Red Rooster and I just walked in and fell in love with the place,” he says. “It was a place where everyone knew each other; it was people of all ages, subcultures, and mindsets. Everybody just piled in, respected each other, and had a good time.”
The environment made such an impact that Billy relocated to the Midwest from his hometown of East Stroudsburg to work at the shop and help them start a nonprofit in the community. Working with members of The Red Rooster, Billy helped develop a weekly art night program with The Fallout, which he describes as “a visible and vibrant arts community that embraces people of all abilities to live creatively together.”
After his stint in South Dakota, Billy spent some time traveling the country before landing in Allentown. The souvenir he returned to Pennsylvania with was the idea to bring a community like the one he experienced at The Red Rooster to his new home.
On January 26, 2016, that dream became a reality when he opened Allentown’s Coffee House Without Limits in the same building as the Alternative Gallery, a local nonprofit arts organization. Since its inception, the Alternative Gallery has provided gallery and studio space for artists, regularly hosting local performing acts and an open mic on Sunday nights.
Their mission seemed a perfect fit for Billy’s experience and own drive for community.
“Through another weird series of events, I ended up getting in touch with the people at the Alternative Gallery, and they were looking to put a coffee shop in the building,” he says.
After one year in business, Billy is sitting back and taking stock of how far the business has come. “It’s surpassed my expectations for it,” he says.
BUSINESSES SUPPORTING BUSINESSES
One success has been his ability to involve the local community in the business. The sandwiches and other menu items, for instance, are made by Sunneen, which is located just five blocks from the coffee house. “It’s family run—they’ve been around for almost thirty years,” Billy says.
Billy also works with three local bakers and gets coffee beans from roasters in Bethlehem. Of course, the shop also carries A-Treat soda.
“I try to source as much as I can from as close as I can,” he says.
But it’s more than strictly business for Billy. The community is involved with the shop on a much deeper level than simple food and beverage transactions.
A CREATIVE COMMUNITY VENUE
As much as he understands and recognizes the need for the coffee shop to sustainably generate revenue, his goal is to almost operate it more as a community center.
“The people who hang out in this shop believe in the goal of it, whether they intrinsically know it or not,” he says.
It turns out that outlook is what has been bringing customers through the door. On just about any given night, the coffee shop becomes a center for local musicians, writers, comedians, and artists to showcase their art: local art adorns the walls, and each week is filled with events such as the “No Mic Open Mic” and poetry readings. In a single day, the shop will host a writer’s meet-up during the afternoon and a comedy event the same night.
“I try to encourage creativity and conversation of all kinds,” he says. “That’s our core value.”
BIPARTISANSHIP OVER BEVERAGES
Billy admits it’s a delicate balance—in creating a space in which all forms of creativity and communication are valid, there is always the risk that one patron or performer may express an idea that is exclusionary or offensive to another. It’s a delicate balance because Billy also strives to create an open and apolitical environment where locals can come and engage in city politics.
It works, in part, because Billy keeps his own personal politics to the side. He also encourages local politicians from all parties to come and converse with their constituents at the shop. The secret, Billy says, is to remain open and respectful.
“I always approach every situation with the knowledge that I could be wrong,” he says. “I try to avoid cultural imperialism where I show up, decide what’s cool, and push that on everyone.”
Instead, Billy’s approach is much more democratic. Many of the books on the shelves are donated and he’ll ask customers—both in the store and online—what events they want to see and then bring in people who share their ideas and allow them to host the events themselves.
“I try, as best I can, to let the community decide the direction the shop goes in,” he says. “So, I crowdsource almost every business decision, like which sandwich I should carry. I try to really make people feel like they have a stake in what’s going on here.”
In that way, Billy says, the individual has the opportunity to create their own meaning from Coffee House Without Limits.
Coffee House Without Limits
705 N 4th St • Allentown