Mennonite-owned Encounter Cafe opens in Iowa City

Rustic interior and menu selection at The Encounter Cafe. — photo by Frankie Schneckloth

The Encounter Cafe, 376 S Clinton St, opened its doors this week serving up breakfast plates, paninis, wraps, smoothies and coffee beverages to neighborhood residents and office workers alike.

The cafe is owned and operated by the Sharon Bethel Mennonite Church in Kalona, Iowa, as a ministry project designed to channel proceeds to groups and organizations in the area. All profits from the cafe will be distributed to another charity or ministry; after the staff and expenses are paid, anything beyond that will go to an outside organization.

“Our church decided that they’d like to establish a for-profit project that would raise money that could then be donated. One of our goals with the cafe is to give back to Iowa City if there is something we could help with,” manager Ray Yutzy said.

“It’s rather amazing how this all came about. It’s been probably a year-and-four-months process. One of our pastors had been in Pennsylvania at State College for a pastors meeting and visited a similar coffee shop in town. He looked around a little bit and said, ‘This is exactly what our church needs to do.'”

Ray Yutzy, manager at The Encounter Cafe — photo by Frankie Schneckloth

Upon the pastor’s return to Iowa, and with excitement brewing in the church congregation, a small committee was formed to lead the process, source contractors and make decisions.

“The project moved from talking for a while and finalizing plans and details and then finally talking to real estate to see what was available here in Iowa City. Wendell Miller with Skogman showed us the place across the street, 60 E Court St, and then this one. Everyone just said, ‘This is the place!'” Yutzy said.

Members of the church helped extensively with the decor and build out and the majority of the staff members are from the church as well. While most of the staff has plenty of real-life kitchen experience, head barista Rhonda Gingerich and kitchen manager Shirley Miller, travelled to State College for an immersive barista and cafe training.

As much as possible, Encounter plans to source ingredients locally. The coffee bar is fueled with Capanna coffee from Coralville/North Liberty, eggs come from just down the road at Farmer’s Hen House, and all dairy products are purchased from Kalona SuperNatural. The produce will be the final piece of the equation with plans to source from local purveyors as soon as possible.

With students living above, across from and all around the cafe, Encounter looks to provide a comfortable and safe place for students to study and hopes to develop a kinship with the community they serve.

“We are particularly interested in providing a home atmosphere for foreign students that have travelled overseas and have no family here and no home. We have a heart for that as well,” Yutzy said.

The Encounter Cafe is open Tuesday through Saturday from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit their Facebook page.