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The Retreat: seriously good coffee in a relaxed atmosphere

A break from the hassles of life
The Retreat, a coffee shop and bakery, is located at 1535 State St. in Ely. Co-owner Mark Banowetz starts baking everyday at 4:25 a.m., ensuring a fresh supply of pecan rolls, gourmet cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, cherry turnovers, scones and bagels. (photo by Chris Umscheid)

ELY– “We take our coffee very seriously.
Mark Banowetz, co-owner of The Retreat in Ely, and his wife Kathleen opened the coffee shop and bakery in a renovated house along State Street in January 2013. In just one year, it has become a daily destination for many, and a new discovery for many more.
“We already had the house and Mark was using it for his own business (Great American Shed Co.),” Kathleen said. “We always kind of wanted to do a coffee shop so we started thinking about it and doing research, and one day, we decided we could do it here in this house with a little extra work.’”
That work involved doing some plumbing, acquiring the necessary equipment –including some of the finest commercial-grade brewing equipment available– painting and decorating, and installing a new furnace and air conditioner to ensure optimal comfort for the patrons. And then came the water purification and filtration system.
For 12 years the couple lived in Colorado, where water came straight from reservoirs in the mountains, “with just a pinch of chlorine,” Kathleen said.
“People would come to our house to visit and they’d say, ‘wow, this coffee is really good,’ and I’d tell them, ‘it’s Folgers, just like yours back home.” One day, Kathleen recalled, someone told her it was the water that made the difference. The purer the water, the better the coffee tastes. Mark said the elaborate system they employ at the Retreat uses filters and softens the water to a precise amount of calcium, which reacts with acids in the coffee for a perfect cup every time.
“The only aftertaste you should have is that aroma,” Mark said, noting it’s an expensive system, but well worth it.
But in this java business, perfect water also required perfect coffee.
“We spent a lot of time, more time than we expected, comparing coffees and who liked what kind of coffee, and what went best with which brand of syrups… a lot more time than we’d expected,” said Kayla Soukup, Mark and Kathleen’s daughter and barista. The reason was simple. “In a small town, you have to have a good product if you want people to keep coming back.” Soukup gained her barista experience in a coffee house in Mississippi.
“When word gets out you want to open up a coffee shop, every roaster, everywhere, brings you their coffee; they want you to try their espresso, their latte. So we did several nights of taste testing with friends and family, and that was very helpful,” Kathleen added. When the testing started, “everybody was kind of quiet, but by the third or fourth cup of coffee, it’s just loud in here. We couldn’t get them out of here,” said Kayla.
After one of the first sessions, Kathleen said, “a friend called us and said, she didn’t sleep all night.’”
The dedication and sleep deprivation led to four standard brew coffees including The Retreat House Blend and decaffeinated version, as well as a plethora of espresso specialties– hot or iced– such as Americano, Breve, Cappuccino, Frappe or Latte. Kayla said the espresso combinations possible are endless. “We’ll build you what ever you want. We want people to come in here and have fun with them.” The crew will happily custom-craft a latte to the customer’s desire.
In fact, personalizing the product isn’t a specialty but the norm for The Retreat, making it the place where you can truly have a unique signature drink.
“The sign of a good barista is knowing your customers,” said Mark. “What impresses me about these girls is they know (their customers) by name, and a lot of times someone will walk in and they know exactly what the customer wants.”
One thing many customers have been wanting is an espresso specialty they call “Bear Tracks.” It’s chocolate and caramel with hazelnut, and harkens back to the Banowetz’s days in Colorado.
“We do take it seriously,” Mark said, but attributed much of the popularity of The Retreat to the baristas, the atmosphere and good customer service.
The Retreat has its regulars, who vary in age from retirees to young professionals with their laptops and iPads taking advantage of the free WiFi service. “We have several (regular customers) that we actually get concerned about if they don’t show up,” Kayla said. “We’ve asked them to let us know if they’re going to be out of town, because we genuinely get concerned if they’re not here.”
During the summer, bicyclists flock to The Retreat for fruit smoothies. “Ely is getting to be a destination place because we’re the southern gateway to the Hoover Trail,” Mark said. The trail, still unfinished, follows an abandoned Rock Island Railroad line from West Branch to Solon and Ely before reaching Cedar Rapids and tying in to the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. When completed, Mark said, it will all be part of the American Discovery Trail. Already they’ve seen bicyclists from around the country stopping in for a refreshing pause in their journey.
“If you want privacy, this really isn’t the coffee shop you want to come to,” Mark said, as conversations can quickly grow from one table to the whole room chiming in. “It’s a friendly atmosphere. People just enjoy coming in and shooting the breeze.”
Mark likened The Retreat to the catchphrase from the 1980s TV show “Cheers”: a place where everybody knows your name.
“It’s a place where people call each other by name, and they know somebody cares about them.”
The Retreat is located at 1535 State St. in Ely, just north of Casey’s. It is open Tuesday through Saturday from 6:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. and closed on Sundays and Mondays. In addition to the coffee and coffee specialty drinks, steamers, hot tea, Chai, milk, soda and fruit juices are also available. Mark starts baking everyday at 4:25 a.m., ensuring a fresh supply of such treats as caramel pecan rolls, gourmet cinnamon rolls, chocolate chip cookies, cherry turnovers, scones and bagels.
Recently The Retreat also began offering a breakfast sandwich of sausage, egg and cheese on a biscuit. Kathleen said it’s ideal to grab and go. In the something-to-look-forward-to category, the crew will soon be offering Bubble Tea, a trendy sweet tea with a mix of tea, milk, sugar, and giant black tapioca balls– shaken, not stirred– during warmer weather.
“We pride ourselves on the highest quality product, a reasonable price and great service,” Mark said. “I believe that’s what’s kept us successful in 25 years of being entrepreneurs.”