The scene inside a coffee shop is often one of hushed activity — regulars reading while sipping their usual drink, friends chatting over pastries, soft music playing in the background. But for the few weeks ramping up to the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1, two of Des Moines’s coffee shops were transformed into media broadcasting sets and gathering spaces for national journalists, caucus-goers and coffee shop regulars alike.
Java Joe’s coffee house, the original micro roaster coffee house in Des Moines, is situated right in the heart of the downtown area in the Court Avenue District. Java Joe’s manager Robb Riggle describes the clientele of the restaurant as varied as the population of the city, while still maintaining the calm coffeehouse vibe.
“We draw in an eclectic group of people, business community leaders, people writing books, more philosophical types, hipster and theater people, because of our theater space,” Riggle says. “We’re a very unique coffee house, and we have the ability to draw a lot of people. The location is also normally calm … people will come for eight to nine hours, come in and write books. It’s very calm. I hesitate to use the word, but it’s chill.”
A common trait among the range of customers is their awareness of the political significance of Iowa during the presidential elections.
“I think it’s a hub of people that are politically engaged,” Riggle says. “They respect that Iowa has that status of first in nation. We have a lot of say. They understand that we’re making history every four years.”
Thanks to Java Joe’s position as a local gathering place, combined with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” host Joe Scarborough’s admiration of the space, the television network first selected Java Joe’s during 2008 as an on-site location for the show during the weeks leading up to the caucuses, Riggle says. The show continued to use the space during the 2012 caucus season and came back again this year.
The hosts usually interview a lot if not all of the candidates before the caucuses, Riggle says.
“Every vote counts, and every person you meet counts, but they’re still willing to take time for 10-15 interviews,” Riggle says.
With a TV production studio placed in the rear of the restaurant, the coffee shop’s atmosphere shifted from calm and eclectic to buzzing and excited. Over the weekend leading up to the caucuses on Monday, Feb. 1, with the MSNBC truck parked outside the shop and an MSNBC directors chair seated to the right of the front entrance, visitors knew this wasn’t the normal Java Joe’s. Inside, regulars sipped coffee and read books alongside hurried journalists from Hungary and Germany. Show employees furiously typed on their laptops, and crew members hauled equipment, giving the coffee shop a rushed backstage feel — it was difficult to find a corner that isn’t exposed to the high energy. Customer Jennifer Klampe observed the excitement from a table near the entrance.
“We came here because my husband Terry loves MSNBC,” Klampe says. “I’d say the feeling here is energetic. There’s lots of people here doing their jobs, which is exciting.”
In spite of the all the action, Java Joe’s still works to maintain a customer-friendly atmosphere.
“Regulars will come in and get coffee — we’ll put it at the top of the order,” Riggle says. “The one time people that are coming in from New York or Chicago, they’re willing to wait and let our regulars be served first. Whoever comes into our coffeehouse, a presidential candidate, an executive of a show or ‘Joe Schmoe’ down the street, we’re all about human interaction and building customer experience. It makes us feel good when we have good human interaction, and that’s why we’re able to stay involved in the caucuses and the local community.”
West End Architectural Salvage
Four floors of antique furniture, jewelry and trinkets fill the warehouse-like space of West End Architectural Salvage, with the salvaged objects coming from New York, Chicago, England and the Middle East. In the open space on the first floor sits a coffee counter, where antique shoppers can take a drink break while still admiring the plentiful endless inventory.
The owners of West End Architectural Salvage already have experience in television broadcasting, as the employees of the antique store are the inspiration for West End Salvage, an HGTV room makeover show. In the series, owner Don Short and his team create up-cycled furniture and centerpieces in the workshop at West End that become the inspiration for customers’ room redesigns. This TV production experience, combined with a recommendation from Iowa’s Visitors Bureau, put West End Architectural Salvage on a list for potential shooting locations for NBC broadcasting during the days leading up to the caucuses.
“West End was chosen because Iowa’s Visitors Bureau gave NBC a list of all the hot spots, and we were on the list, and we’d had TV action here before,” employee Danielle Grimm says. “NBC came here and fell in love. Our location had the most character.”
What is normally a calm antique shopper’s retreat turned into a destination to see the preparations for “Meet the Press with Chuck Todd,” “NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt” and “The Today Show” for the first time this year. Although the coffee shop closed during filming, guests were still drawn to the action of the setup.
Given the wider, more open space of West End compared to Java Joe’s, the atmosphere still maintained a balance between coffee shop calm and production set buzz. Groups sat huddled at small tables across from the coffee counter, and when seats were filled, the overflow guests stood alongside the entrance, but the space never felt crowded. A hush fell over the customers when Lester Holt did a soundcheck for the NBC Nightly News, and guests’ faces showed varying degrees of awe and starstruck.
The use of West End as a shooting location also ties into a bigger trend in media representation of Des Moines during the Iowa caucuses. West End is just one of many downtown local businesses that have grown over the last decade and given Des Moines a stronger and more urban flavor.
“[NBC] wanted something unique, not just another cornfield,” West End manager Tony Zika says. “They’re showing a different idea of Iowa. The attitude towards Des Moines from people who have visited has shifted. They realize everyone who lives here hasn’t lived on a farm. Shooting the Today Show here will add to the perception that Des Moines is a more urban environment than people think.”
Both Java Joe’s and West End maintain their space as a gathering spot for drinks, discussions and the occasional television show, whether catering to presidential candidates, world-famous journalists or Iowa caucus-goers.