The Mudhouse Cafe
Southeast's First Cybercafe Pairs Cappuccino with High Speed Internet Access in Charlottesville, VA
Lynelle Lawrence is high on adrenaline today, March 17, 1998. Not because it is anything so conventional as St. Patrick's Day, but because she and her husband and business partner, John Lawrence, have just opened the smartroom above their mega-popular Mudhouse Cafe. The Mudhouse combines the relaxing atmosphere of a coffee house, with local coffees and pastries baked on site, with a high-speed Internet connection at a workspace created specifically for the cafe. The cybercafe also features live music and Thursday night "Poetry Slams" for their diverse clientele.
Located on the picturesque Main Street pedestrian mall in Charlottesville, VA—in close proximity to the University of Virginia's main campus—the Mudhouse has become the central meeting place, and place for doing business, for the city's government officials, lawyers, business owners and students. The atmosphere they've created at the Mudhouse is a dream realized for the Lawrences.
The idea to start a coffee house/cybercafe in Charlottesville came to Lynelle an John while they were both living in Alaska. Childhood friends, Lynelle and John met again in Alaska, where neither was working in the restaurant industry. According to Lynelle, they spent a lot of time in coffee houses, which Lynelle describes as "a great space for free expression." Both knew that there was no such space in the Mid-Atlantic or Southeast at the time (1991), let alone in their home state of Virginia. The couple came back to Virginia and began to test their idea.
Lynelle and John began with a coffee cart that served gourmet coffees, espresso and cappuccino on Main Street in Charlottesville. Every business day, the Lawrence's would roll their cart to the top of the street no later than 8:00 a.m. The concept and the cart caught on—a combination of curiosity and just plain good coffee and service. "It formed an energy all its own and became the place to find out news and information," says Lynelle. "We even put up a bulletin board on a nearby tree."
With an $8,500 loan, the Lawrences tested the market with their cart for a full year. Lynelle worked the cart all day. John worked at a popular restaurant up the street to pay the bills. The market test showed a real interest in their product and their concept for the coffee house.
The Lawrence's conducted a lot of research before opening in October of 1995, including contacting SCORE, on the advice of a friend. Referred to SCORE Counselor Joe Geller, who is the former owner of the Silver Thatch Inn in Virginia and has a long history working within the restaurant and bed and breakfast industries, the Lawrences say they couldn't have found a better mentor. Since 1995, the Lawrences have met or talked with Joe about the business at least once a week. "Joe is always there," says Lynelle. " He is so supportive, so giving and has incredible integrity."
Lynelle now sings the praises of SCORE to everyone she meets. Joe was most instrumental in keeping the couple focused and aiming for that next step to get their business started. He helped them with everything from business planning to bookkeeping, advertising, management, media and the Internet. According to Geller, he helped guide the Lawrence's through the ownership process, but they brought the power of experience and commitment to their business.
The Mudhouse is doing so well that the Lawrences were able to accelerate payments on their $60,000 start-up loan and secure financing for the upstairs section of the cafe, the newly launched smartroom. So much business was being conducted in the Mudhouse that Lynelle often had requests from customers to rent the upstairs for private meetings or receptions. The Lawrence's vision of their cybercafe led them to create their smartroom, a wired multi-media conference room, which boasts some of the most sophisticated projection and presentation equipment and capabilities available today. The entire room is "wired" to accommodate laptop computers and video conferencing. "You really feel like you're in a private screening room," says Lynelle.
"Charlottesville is like a mini-Silicon Valley for a town this size," Lynelle adds, demonstrating there is a definite market for their smartroom. The room can host any number of configurations (probably no more than 25 comfortably) because the Lawrences chose versatile modular furniture that can be set up for individual training work stations, or as one large conference table. They invested in designer Herman Miller's Aeron chairs for comfort and created a unique atmosphere for their meeting space—officially set to launch in April through a series of open houses.
The Lawrence's know that they've created something special in the Mudhouse and readily admit that the staff is the reason it all works. "Our staff is as important as our customers," says Lynelle. For example, the Lawrence's closed the cafe in February to treat the entire staff to a three-day ski trip in West Virginia. "We can't pay people a lot, so it is very important for us to show the staff how much we appreciate them. You can just sense that everyone at the Mudhouse—both customers and employees—really wants to be there."