When Arts Collide: Cara Nader shares lessons from 10 years as the Strange Matter owner 

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LANSING, Mich. The effect that a simple choice by one person with passion and determination can have on a community shines through in the form of small businesses. One, in particular, started in a small shop on Michigan Ave. in Lansing. Strange Matter Coffee is the product of Cara Nader taking a passion for the art of coffee and turning it into a career that gives back to her community. 

“I got to the point where I was like, the service industry doesn’t pay very well and if I want to make no money, I can do that working for myself,” Nader said. At 24, she started writing a business plan using her experience managing shops and competing in barista competitions. After around three years, she moved from the Traverse City area into Lansing where she discovered a way to balance the lower cost of living and get a foot in the door. After finding a landlord, Nader and her wife, Elaine Barr, found that Lansing is home to many people who want to see small businesses succeed. She worked out a deal and Nader and Barr did much of the construction themselves. In 2014, they were able to open the doors and begin building their business. 

“For the first four years we were open, we didn’t have a batch brew,” Nader stated when explaining that the shop started out with folding chairs and the bare minimum when it came to coffee equipment. “We would do like 80 pour-overs a day, which is pretty crazy when you think of a barista standing there with kettles just brewing cups of coffee by hand all day.” The shop was created on the premise of the art of preparing a cup of coffee through pour-over methods, which is more manually involved and gives the barista more control over the brew time of the coffee. This is what Nader personally enjoys in a coffee shop. 

“One of my personal passions is black coffee and single origin, coffee that is traceable: who grew it, how much they sold it for,” she said. “I wanted to create a coffee shop that wasn’t just a place to get four times your daily sugar intake, but a place for people who really want the nuance and kind of adventure that comes with single origin coffees.” 

The evolution of Strange Matter and its expansions into Downtown and the MSU Union wasn’t easy. Nader faced numerous monetary struggles to get the business up and running because of the difficulties she faced when it came to getting funding. She lived paycheck to paycheck before deciding to open her shop and discussed how it felt that the loan system was geared towards not helping people who need the help but instead helping those who do not necessarily need it. After almost nine and a half years of business, Nader thought getting funding for her expansion into East Lansing on Michigan State’s campus would be easier since they had built a following. Unfortunately, expanding was still the hardest part: “I was always told, oh man your business plan is the best business plan I’ve ever seen. I can’t fund you,” she said. 

Nader never let the string of no’s sway her from pursuing her passion because she knew that she was attempting to build a career in a field that tends to have a difficult success rate. According to the Chamber of Commerce and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18 percent of small businesses fail within their first year, 50 percent fail after five years, and 65 percent by their tenth year. “You’re not going to be out there raking in the money. It’s a passion project for sure,” Nader said as she acknowledged the struggles of getting her feet on the ground. Strange Matter is going on its tenth year of being open and continues to grow a following and gather support from other small businesses in the area. Sara Pulver, the founder of Dear Ollie in Lansing created the mural in the Union location of Strange Matter, and Nader promotes Pulver’s business on social media whenever she gets a chance. Nader also works with Debbie Carlos, a ceramicist and former photographer in the area who has helped her grow Strange Matter. She believes that supporting small businesses benefits the community by keeping the money local. 

Source: Forbes Advisor

“I don’t think I would be where I am without some of the small businesses that I’ve met along the way,” Nader said. Nader’s appreciation for small businesses and the Lansing community is reflected in how she treats her employees. She prides herself on being able to take the struggles that she faced early in her career as a barista and ensure that her employees have a more livable wage and even benefits. “My favorite thing about being a business owner is that I have control over how I pay my staff,” Nader says. “This isn’t just a temporary throwaway job; they can build a life here in this community.” 

“We have a very diverse and welcoming staff and I think that any time you walk into a space, if you can see yourself there, you feel more comfortable,” said Nader when discussing the aspects of building a safe space within her business. “I think by fostering a diverse work environment for the staff, you can really make all customers feel safe.” To some, it seems to be paying off. 

“One of the important things here is that it’s a woman owned and is a very progressively minded facility,” Dorothy Engelman said. “It welcomes everybody that walks in the door and that’s really important to me.” Engelman is a regular at the Eastside location and has been coming to spend time drawing while enjoying a savory scone and her coffee with creamer. She is a retired high school science and history teacher from the Troy area. She spent seven years living on a boat on the West Coast before moving to Utah for nine more. Engelman came to Lansing around five years ago to be closer to her daughter. She has been a customer at Strange Matter for almost as long as she has lived in the area and has established employees who are friendly faces. “There’s not a real high turnover. Certain people have been here for a long time.” 

She enjoys the shop’s baked goods and brings her mug since they offer a discount for this sustainable consumer behavior. Engelman enjoys drawing at Strange Matter because she appreciates the atmosphere that the shop has created, the variety of seating, the abundance of natural light and the accommodation of the staff that she has connected with over the years.  

The intersection of the unique pastries and attention to detail within their coffee selections creates a unique intersection between the business and one of their customers: “Their art of creation with baked goods, because they develop their own recipes and they are unique, is fueling my art,” Engelman said. She took art classes while working on her master’s earlier in life, when she discovered that she loved art but had not done much with it. She draws using Zentangle project packs, a drawing form that she picked up from a friend during the pandemic, and from there, she worked her way to becoming a certified Zentangle teacher. “It opened a whole new world to me. Zentangles are nonrepresentational, meditative, repetitive forms of drawing, but they can look like things,” she said. Engelman teaches at the Lansing Art Gallery and freelance teaching now in her retirement.  

She still takes the time to visit Strange Matter and spend a few hours of her day drawing and interacting with other customers and add a new level of creativity that she gets from being in the environment. “I think supporting people’s dreams is important,” Engelman says. Her message to people in the Lansing area is this: 

“I’d strongly urge people to try it. Especially older people and by that, I mean over 50. I think they miss out on something by saying ‘I can make coffee at home.’ I drink regular coffee with cream, and they’re always really good about leaving enough room for my cream. I think that they miss out on the vibe when you walk in and the opportunity. It’s neat because it puts you in a comfortable position to interact with people and to me, living alone, that’s important. 

I think that we need to be open to hearing new things, and even if I don’t interact with somebody, I sometimes take ideas away. That’s something else that you don’t get if you’re sitting at home.” 

Customers like these fuel Nader’s passion for the coffee business, but unfortunately, everyone is not as welcoming as the staff and the shop customers. Strange Matter was one of a few other openly queer-owned shops within the state that received a threatening letter in their mailbox just a week after the tragic shooting that took place on the campus of Michigan State University on Feb. 13, 2023. “It was twelve pages of just pretty out there, nonsensical but like threatening, racist, homophobic [statements] like somebody like exploded Twitter on 12 pages of paper. It was certainly a scary moment when I opened that letter like what is this?” Nader said as she explained what went through her mind earlier this year. The FBI eventually got involved after about twelve hours because even though it was filled with rambling and non-cohesive content, it contained numerous dates and threatening language, and they were not the only space targeted.  

Because some of the dates in the letter made Nader and her staff uncomfortable, they closed for a few days to give staff some distance from the experience. “It was just a rough few weeks for everyone and closing just seemed like the right idea for everyone’s mental health and for everyone’s safety,” she said while revisiting the experience. 

While there haven’t been any updates on the case from February, Nader has worked on growing from her experiences of being an openly queer-owned and accepting business. “That’s the world we live in, unfortunately. At the end of the day, no matter how scary something is, you must find a way to cope with that feeling,” she said.  

Her passion for coffee and sharing it with the Lansing community is what keeps her going through hard times. She still proudly hangs the LGBTQ+ flag in the window at the front of the store, has a sign that reads “we filter coffee, not people,” and continues to do what she loves for the community that has supported her throughout the past nine and a half years. 

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