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Signature Coffee House a downtown success story

Laurel — This city’s downtown business district has never recovered from the relocation of its stores to malls and shopping centers, and a controversial urban renewal project that gutted parts, destroyed such landmarks as the Masonic Temple and covered the area’s sidewalks with a canopy that left downtown with a dim, foreboding aura that kept people away.

In the late 1990s, downtown seemed to be in a revival as Mayor Susan Vincent removed the canopy and businesses such as the Central Avenue Cafe and the Antiques Mall opened.
Among other new businesses was Signature Coffee House, a totally new concept for coffee drinking in the Piney Woods of Jones County with its espresso, cappuccino, cafe latte and flavored coffee drinks.

Signature also offers panini sandwiches, which were new, as well as wraps, soups and salads.

An empty business on Central Avenue was gutted and emerged with an award-winning interior by architect Diane Owens and a courtyard with umbrella-shaded tables.

But the optimism about revival began to dissipate slowly. The Central Avenue Cafe changed hands several times, its business declined and it finally closed. Small businesses that had been open a short time also closed.

Today, downtown Laurel has few businesses except for some that have been open many years because they have a firm, loyal customer base and two or three other businesses — Cafe LaFleur (a restaurant) and Elegant Evenings (which rents and sells evening gowns) — that opened in the last few years.
Signature Coffee House is one of these survivors.

Taking a leap

Jim and Carolyn Cegielski moved to Laurel from New Jersey in 1995 because Carolyn, a gastroenterologist, accepted a position with Jefferson Medical Associates. Jim had worked for Random House when he lived in New Jersey and continued to work with them in Laurel.

But the job required travel and Cegielski had two small daughters and wanted to spend more time with them as they were growing up. After exploring business opportunities, he decided to open a coffee shop in Laurel, though this was unexplored territory in this part of Mississippi and an entrepreneurial leap of faith.

The name Signature was Cegielski’s concept and an extension of his hobby, and the coffee house walls are covered with autographed photos of celebrities.

Kathy Colborn, originally from Kansas, had come down from New Jersey to Mississippi at the same time as the Cegielskis. She started working at Signature early on and soon became the manager.

These days, Jim Cegielski takes a limited part in the day-to-day running of Signature, and a partner, Ken DuPre, has returned to work at Jones County Junior College. To many of Signature’s customers today, Kathy Colborn is the face of Signature.

When asked why Signature has stayed in business when other downtown business startups went under, she first said, “because we’re unique, one of a kind.”

Then she added, “And Signature is a comfortable place with a broad appeal to different kinds of customers — people of all ages, downtown business people, retired couples, school kids.”

Colborn said that another factor in being able to stay in business is that Signature has refused to lower the quality of their coffee, other beverages and food.

“There have been suggestions, for instance, that we buy cheaper coffee and that people won’t know the difference. But even people who didn’t know that much about good coffee when they started coming here, they do now. They would be able to tell the difference.”

At first, the plan was for Signature to be only a coffee house, with no food. But that didn’t turn out to be financially feasible because there’s almost no pedestrian or vehicular traffic downtown (which has been cited as a principal reason why other small retail businesses have failed in the area).

The food has proved to be popular with downtown business people at lunch. There’s also a variety of cakes as well as muffins, cinnamon rolls, croissants and bagels. “Our most popular food items are the grilled chicken panini with pesto, the turkey with mozzarella and the soups,” Colborn said. “The most popular beverages are smoothies, flavored caffe latte, such as Snickers and shamrock (made with Irish cream) and our signature drink, the eskimo kiss.”

The eskimo kiss is made with espresso, Ghiardelli chocolate syrup, chocolate ice cream and whipped cream.

Experts in restaurant survival — and, among businesses, the mortality rate for restaurants is high — say that one essential ingredient for success is that, at all times, there must be an owner or manager involved in the day-to-day operation to insure consistent quality control and customer service.

This is particularly true with espresso drinks. The process takes time and patience and no shortcuts, but many employees tend to hurry the process or don’t pay attention to details.

Jim Cegielski went away to Denver to learn how to make espresso drinks before he opened Signature. He passed on this training to Colborn who, in turn, trains each new employee. She also sends the new employee home with a videotape, “Espresso 101,” which provides detailed lessons in how to prepare espresso bar drinks.

In addition to hiring and training employees, Colborn also does the scheduling and ordering. She arrives at 7 a.m. to make coffee and tea, put out the pastry, heat soup and prep for lunch and she works until the lunch rush subsides. If someone can’t show up for a shift, she fills in.

Signature espresso beans come from Bardorf & Bronson in Olympia, Wash. Reliable Coffee in New Orleans (now temporarily operating out of Baton Rouge) supplies the Kenya and flavored coffees and New Orleans Roasters is the vendor for Ghiardelli chocolate and Monin syrups. Sysco is the purveyor for food and other supplies.

“We’re lucky to have such a place in Laurel,” said Paul Swartzfager, a retired lawyer and daily customer. “It’s quaint, comfortable and I can sit and read the paper for as long as I want.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer at George McNeill at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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