Des Moines man refreshes his life, restarts coffee company
DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — T.J. Rude feels grounded.
But in March 2021, life for the founder of local coffee company Northern Vessel was far from this way: the startup closed that month. Rude cited serious financial difficulties and struggled privately with a battle from burnout.
Now, Northern Vessel opened a new brick-and-mortar store near downtown Des Moines in November 2022 at 1201 Keo Way.
The Des Moines Register reports that Rude staged a coffee company comeback, refreshed his life, and reupped his Des Moines-based brand he started with his best friend Alexander Prins and two silent business partners.
In 2017, Rude moved to the northern part of Orange County south of Los Angeles and worked at a coffee shop, riding his bike to shifts as a barista. After returning home to Iowa, the Johnston native founded Northern Vessel in 2019.
Northern Vessel, which started as a coffee cart in downtown Des Moines, opened a stand-alone location on Keo Way.
He originally wanted to sell coffee on the street, creating an elevated version of a lemonade stand, Rude said, because he did not like a typical coffee shop model at the time.
“Having lived in L.A., I saw a lot of coffee carts,” Rude added. “That’s different. Nobody’s doing that here. What if we tried that?”
Throughout its first year, the coffee company popped up at graduation parties, weddings, and other local events.
In 2020, Northern Vessel launched a local coffee delivery service, created an outdoor coffee cart on the street in the city’s downtown, and rented out a space in the St. Kilda Cafe & Bakery at the Temple for Performing Arts while the restaurant closed during the pandemic. By the next year, in early January 2021, the Iowa Christian Academy alum began suffering from extreme burnout.
“By January, I was completely burnt out. Everything was bootstrapped, so we had no resources for anything,” Rude said. “All this was like ‘Hey, let’s do this’ and two weeks later, we were doing it.”
In March 2021, Rude decided to shutter the company and announced Northern Vessel’s closure in a nearly one-minute-long video posted to social media platforms. In the post, Rude called the decision to close the “right” one and thanked metro area customers for their support.
“I was totally spent — physically, emotionally, everything. Just pretty done,” Rude added about the decision to close. “We tried one more stint at the deliveries and then in March, we were like, ‘This isn’t working, we need to shut down.’”
After the company shut down, Rude regrouped and went to work for a Des Moines-based real estate development group. If he had not shut down, he doesn’t think the company would have been revived and he’s in the healthiest place mentally that he has ever been, he said.
In summer 2022, Northern Vessel made a lowkey return to the city’s coffee scene with pop-ups at Super Secret Brunch Club, the summer brunch function at DMDT Hospitality & Lifestyle-fronted cocktail bar Secret Admirer.
On July 31, Northern Vessel announced its new home at 1201 Keosauqua Way in the neighborhood near downtown Des Moines.
Rude first toured the spot before the company’s original closure, returning to choose the red brick location for its prime corner near Mainframe Studios and Proteus headquarters.
“When I saw this in February, this part of the building, it was studs,” Rude said.
To Rude, intention is everything. Alongside Prins and their business partners, Rude renovated the building and added the shop’s aesthetically aware interiors, including greenery, minimalist lines, light wood accents, art-like lighting fixtures, and nontraditional seating options.
Northern Vessel aims to combine strong customer service with consistent high-quality drinks to create a customer experience, he added.
The shop’s curated menu features its signature drinks: a cold brew, lattes with oat milk, three tea flavors, and hot-and-cold non-coffee selections.
Northern Vessel’s slogan is “forward together.”
Before Northern Vessel closed, Prins kept two plants alive from the company’s 2020 era at St. Kilda.
“We said, ‘One day, we’re going to have a shop. I don’t know when it’s going to be. It might be five years from now but we’re going to keep them alive,’” Rude said.
Like the vines that now sit atop the coffee company’s merchandise showcase, Rude grew. He moved forward, found solid ground, and gave himself rest. Then, he came back.
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