LV Recommends: Morning Bell Coffee Roasters, Iowa’s only worker-owned cafe, keeps Ames fresh and focused

Morning Bell Coffee’s Con Limon — courtesy of the cafe

“Take your time, let me know if I can help with some recommendations.”

The barista with the circle-rimmed glasses and well-trimmed mustache who greets me at Morning Bell Coffee Roasters (111 Main St Suite 101, Ames) seems to clock my coffee novice immediately. Still, they’re patient and accommodating, which I appreciate more than they’ll ever know.

They recommend a “Con Limon,” pointing to a rather simple description on the drink list between us. A Con Limon, I learned, is a concoction of cold brew coffee and lemon juice, which seems like a prank to my inexperienced Midwestern self. I take them at their word, though, and fork over the $5 (plus tip), receiving a Morning Bell branded pint glass full of an enticing amber mix.

It’s at this point that I take in the environment. Clean white hexagonal tiles pattern the front and sides of the counter, contrasting the jet-black ornate ceiling and deep brown hardwood floor. The walls are bare in a classy way, speckled with art and photography. A full roastery resides in the back, cordoned off by a wall with some plate glass windows that let a curious cat like me check things out.

The aroma of roasted beans is alluring, and it takes everything I’ve got not to float back there like a rascally cartoon character to a cooling pie. I keep my cool though, claiming one of the black leather chairs at the front of the shop.

It strikes me how comfortable the Morning Bell staff seem to be. They work when they have work to do, and allow themselves to shoot the shit and relax when possible — a way of being that my former Fareway boss would insist is impossible. These workers take care to keep the customers satisfied, the ship running smoothly and themselves sane.

A worker-owner keeps it chill on a pile of beans at Morning Bell Coffee Roasters, 111 Main St #101, Ames. — courtesy of the cafe

They act as if they own the place, which makes sense given that, actually, they do own the damn place. Morning Bell made history on New Year’s Day 2022, transitioning from a privately owned coffee shop to Iowa’s first worker-owned cooperative business.

People familiar with Ames or Iowa City may be acquainted with Wheatsfield Cooperative or New Pioneer Food Co-op, which are member-owned cooperative grocery stores. There, the members are the owners. Membership is established by paying for a membership share, which can come with perks such as specials and discounted prices, as well as the ability to cast a vote for the co-op’s decision-making board. Thus, a member-owned cooperative serves its members and, in theory, makes decisions that are best for its customers.

In a worker-owned cooperative like Morning Bell, the business’s workers are the owners, meaning each employee earns a share of the business by working there. They, too, are enabled by their share to vote on business matters, allowing for a more egalitarian method of operation as opposed to the American standard top-down model. It’s possible for a worker-owned cooperative to be completely and directly democratic, with every worker voting on every business decision, but typically the workers at large elect some of their colleagues to a board that can make decisions more efficiently. Thus, a worker-owned cooperative serves its workers who, in theory, make decisions that are best for themselves and their customers. This seems to be the case at Morning Bell, and the labor-first mentality behind their organization certainly lends itself well to an enjoyable coffee shop experience.

Morning Bell Coffee Roasters prepares coffee beans for shipping around the country, and sipping in-house at their downtown Ames cafe. — courtesy of Morning Bell

When I’ve had coffee in the past, I’ve preferred it the same way I do alcohol: mostly sugar. This Con Limon, though, is a revelation. Hesitant at first, each subsequent swig solidifies the simple genius of the Con Limon, a not-too-sweet, not-too-sour, not-too-dark and not-too-bright elixir, unsurprisingly reminiscent of an Arnold Palmer. Put a 12-gauge under my chin and I still couldn’t give you a memory of any particular chai latte or white chocolate mocha I’ve guzzled in the past. I say with certainty, though, that this Con Limon will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I couldn’t be happier.

Most coffee shops in Iowa are fine, some are great, but only one puts its workers and, by extension, its patrons, first. Morning Bell is a hit by any metric — five stars, 10/10, two thumbs up, what have you — and anyone sauntering about Ames’ Main Street owes it to themselves to check it out.

This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 013.