Downtown Topeka needs more coffee and conversation.
That is the philosophy behind ChatterHouse, a coffee shop concept from Lucas Ryan, Leobardo Espinoza Jr. and Ashley Klemme. The business venture is among 10 finalists competing for $100,000 and expert advice in Top Tank, a local version of the popular ABC show “Shark Tank.”
Contestants are also vying for an opportunity to open in an undisclosed downtown location.
“We were looking at how Facebook and social media filled this void in creating a place for discourse, but over the last few years we’ve seen a decline in the quality of that discourse,” Ryan said. “We want to be center for community enrichment.”
ChatterHouse would operate as a typical coffeehouse during the morning hours, but after noon Ryan plans to change things up. For an hour in the afternoon, WiFi will be disconnected to encourage “conversations with the people around you.”
In the evenings, ChatterHouse plans to be open until 9 p.m., and the coffeehouse will host community enrichment programs, like seminars on doing taxes or evaluating facts, Ryan said. ChatterHouse would also offer a venue for “fair and productive discourse.”
“We’re going to focus on high-quality service in the morning, so we can pay to keep the lights on in the evening when the real focus will be on community events,” he said.
The idea is modeled after “Penny Universities,” English coffeehouses popular in the 17th and 18th centuries as places of public discourse and debate. Ryan, now a realtor, became interested in coffee’s history and roll in society while working as a supervisor at Starbucks. He said he often discussed creating a Penny University-like space with Klemme, currently a Starbucks supervisor, and Espinoza, a recent Yale graduate.
The trio graduated from Topeka High School between 2013 and 2015, but Ryan said the group isn’t intimidated competing against older contestants, many with more experience. Both he and Klemme bring an understanding of the coffee business, he said, but more importantly downtown Topeka is in need of young professionals.
“We’re really hoping our freshness is more of an asset than it is a drawback,” he said. “We grew up in an age where if you want to know something, you look it up online or you make a call. Education is far less of a barrier.”
The group plans to hire a few employees but remain largely hands-on in the first year.
Ryan worked the Washburn University Small Business Development Center to formulate the business plan and hopes to open ChatterHouse regardless of the outcome of Top Tank.
“This is something I’ve been kicking around in the back of my head,” he said. “I planned to raise the capital or find investors myself, but this sort of shortened that timeline.”
The Top Tank judging team, which includes Cody Foster, Jim Klausman, Brent Boles, Mark Ruelle and John Dicus, the five businessmen financially supporting the competition, will provide feedback about finalists’ business plans. Greg Schwerdt will donate design work through Schwerdt Design.
Final interviews will occur Feb. 15.