When Ahrre Maros, owner of , was in his mid-20s, he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life, but he knew what he liked—coffee and live music.
Since then, Maros, who was born and raised in Summit, has devoted his career and much of his free time to pursuing those passions. The owner of the Elm Street coffee haven confessed, however, that he ended up in his profession rather randomly.
Maros explained that one holiday season he returned to Summit from Berkeley, CA where he had been going to school. He and a friend visiting from the West Coast set off on a rainy Sunday afternoon in search of a good cup of coffee.
"There was no place—this was Christmas of '88—and there was no place to get a good cup of coffee," he said. "We came across this construction site and a sign that said 'Coming Soon' and my friend said 'You need to move back here because this place obviously needs a coffee store.'"
Maros said the more he thought about it, the more the idea made sense.
"I went back to California and I signed up for a course on how to start and run your own business. It was perfect; it was exactly what I needed. I learned about creating a business plan and everything I needed to know to start a business," the entrepreneur said.
After moving back home, Maros said he was unable to secure a spot in Summit right away but found a space in Cranford that he knew was just the right size for a start up. Within the next three years, the new business owner found locations in Westfield and Summit and opened both as well.
"The one in Summit was Ahrre's Coffee Roastery at the Common Ground Cafe," he said. "That leads into the concerts because we had live entertainment at the Common Ground Cafe seven nights a week. My business partner, Daniel Gibson, a dear friend of mine who is also a musician and fancied himself having his finger on the pulse of music in the area, checked out all the college town acts. We had a full calendar: open mic/poetry on Monday, singer/songwriter night on Tuesdays. Thursday was jazz night and Friday and Saturday we had something that was interesting and poppy that would bring in a crowd."
Maros said the cafe closed in 1997 when Starbucks opened up down the street and "pulled the rug out from under us." Because many musicians and artists were unaware that the cafe no longer existed, they continued to send Maros their submissions.
Still wanting to support and promote live music, Maros said he approached his church in Summit with the idea of holding performances there. Artists would be paid either a flat fee or a percentage of money made at the door and the rest would be donated to charity. Shortly after getting it off the ground, the church closed for renovations.
At the same time, Maros was contacted by the minister at the Springfield Emanuel Methodist church, Rev. Jeff Markay. The minister was interested in starting a concert series and had heard from a congregant that Maros had contacts in the music world and was willing to donate the coffee that would be served during intermission.
"That's how I was pulled into the first-ever 'Coffee with Conscience,'" Maros said. "The Reverend's really the guy that got it going, I just joined on to help with the coffee; I wasn't even a member of the church. But inside that first year, there was a team of seven of us, two died, two moved away and the minister got transferred. I just thought 'oh well, the show must go on!' So that's how I ended up in charge, due to attrition."
Maros said during that time a group from in Westfield came to see a show featuring David Roth, who returns to town at 8 p.m. on Saturday, March 17 at FUMC. Liking what they saw, the group was interested in bringing live music to Westfield. For a while, the shows switched back and forth monthly between Springfield and Westfield, but eventually moved to FUMC exclusively.
Each concert donates its proceeds, minus the artist's fee, to a local charity. Roth's Saturday show will benefit the NJ Community Foodbank. The Westfield Service League generously supports the endeavor, Maros said, and helped pay for the sound system.
With only three concerts remaining in the 2011-2012 season, the series organizer said his thoughts have turned toward next season's offerings.
"I'm trying to decide, do I want to just have a year of all my favorites and or do I want to book the heavy hitters that will actually fill a room? Some people draw a large crowd and bring in a lot of money for the charities. There are so many wonderful people who don't get the opportunity to perform it's great to offer them a place to play," Maros said.
Aside from providing artists with a space to showcase their talents, Maros said most people need a forum to be introduced to new music.
"Remember when you found all of your music because a friend gave you a really great mixed tape? Well, I'm that guy," he said.
Organizing the series has afforded the consummate music fan an opportunity to get to know some of his favorite artists. An admirer of Ethiopian singer/songwriter Tom Prasada-Rao, Maros said he now calls the musician a friend. He also marvels at the fact that he regularly shares wine on his Plainfield porch with artists he followed around the Bay area more than 20 years ago.
Coming full circle, Maros looks forward to regaining a foothold in the Summit coffee trade when he sets up shop as the in-house coffee purveyor at Mondo Summit, a Union County replica of Chelsea Market, expected to open in April.
Maros also is planning to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his Elm Street location this spring.
*Note: It goes without saying that Maros' favorite place to enjoy a cup of coffee is at his own roastery. He shared that he takes his coffee "nice and dark" with cream and sugar.