The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

The student news site of the University of Northern Iowa

Northern Iowan

Sarah’s Espresso is heating up

Sarah Rohlfsen takes on Main Street and running a small business
Sarah’s Espresso Cafe opened in 2020, and hit their stride within a few months of opening. One of their biggest successes is their energy brews.

Local business owner Sarah Rohlfsen has dreamt of opening up her own business since she was 14 years old. Now, Sarah’s Espresso Café is one of the most visited coffee shops in the Cedar Falls/Waterloo area since it opened in 2020.

“I got my first job at 14, and after that I kinda wanted a business of my own,” Rohlfsen said. “When I was younger, my grandma, who was Dutch, lived close by. We used to cook a lot together. Then, in college I worked at a coffee shop and that’s how I thought of the idea.”

Located on Main Street in downtown Cedar Falls, Sarah’s Espresso Café became a success in a matter of months because of its unique drink ideas, like their famous energy brews and their creative monthly specials.

Sarah’s husband, Scott Rohlfsen, added that they’re not afraid to try new things, which is what really sets them apart.

“We got tipped off that energy drinks are a big deal in eastern Iowa,” Sarah said. “So, we started them here with a cotton candy energy brew. Now, we have a new flavor every month. I still have our old menu from when we started.”

Sarah said their goal for Sarah’s Espresso Café was to try and “go with the trends” and experience new things.

“What I like about us is we’re customizable,” she said. “We want to make sure when you leave here, you’re getting just what you wanted. Even if something is out of date, we’ll try to keep it around somewhere in the back for them.”

Sarah’s Espresso Café has become such a hit that many of their customers drive over from Waterloo just to get one of Sarah’s signature energy brews.

“I would say when the “Barbie” movie came out, our Barbie drink outsold everything insanely fast,” Sarah added.

When asked what advice she would give aspiring business owners at UNI, Sarah said to try and remain as positive as possible, because opening a business won’t run perfectly all the time.

“I fail all the time. I mess up drinks every day, and I still keep going” she said. “Don’t let it set you back, because having a negative outlook will only bring a negative result.”

Sarah added that if it’s really meant to be, it’ll be. When she first started she feared nobody would know who they were. Now, Sarah’s Espresso Café is widely known by nearly every student at UNI and has even been featured on radio channel 92.3.

“It’s kinda like throwing spaghetti at the wall, you just gotta see if it sticks,” Sarah said.

Despite opening up during the start of [COVID-19], Sarah and her husband Scott said that it actually made it easier on them to handle the start of the business during the “stand-still.”

“It was hard to get the word out at first because nobody wanted to go outside. But, it ended up being like a slow burn,” Scott Rohlfsen said.

Sarah had just turned 30 when she and her husband opened Sarah’s Espresso Café. Originally, they wanted to open up in a space they found in Waterloo.

“She had told me she wanted to do this, so I wanted to make sure it happened,” Scott said. “I called a realtor, and we looked at a place in Waterloo, and that was that.”

When the Rohlfsens’ realtor showed them their current space, they thought it wouldn’t work for how big it was. They were also worried people wouldn’t be able to find them amongst the other businesses sharing the space.

“We thought there was no way we could produce enough coffee for this space, but the building owner had a concept to clump up all the sections which separated the businesses into their own areas,” Sarah said.

When deciding how to design their newly acquired space, Sarah knew she didn’t want anything over the top. They wanted something simple that worked for everyone.

“The place was kind of set up from the restaurant that used to be in there when we bought it,” she said. “They left their tables and chairs, and those are the ones we’re using now.”

Sarah’s Espresso Café is furnished with decorative warmly-lit chandeliers, creamy accented stone walls, black and white scattered tables and chairs, and large cushy white booths that look as if they can seat 10 people in each.

“We wanted a classic “plain-jane” feel that everyone felt comfortable being in,” Sarah said.

Sarah said one of the most difficult challenges she faced owning her own business was separating herself from the business.

“Obviously it’s mine, and I’m doing it. But, if someone doesn’t like the drink it’s not on me, it’s on the business. It’s not gonna be perfect and not everyone will like everything and I have to be okay with that,” she said.

Sarah added that being in a position where she shares her space among multiple businesses was an adjustment when they first opened.

“Voicing my opinion was a learning lesson for me – and putting myself out there with the drinks. I had to be patient and learn to speak up,” she said. “Now, it’s a lot easier for me to speak up when I feel it’s necessary.”

The Rohlfsens both agreed that the most rewarding experience with Sarah’s Espresso Café has been seeing how much their customers love it.

“I heard someone the other day say ‘Ugh this drink looks fire,’ and that made me really happy,” Sarah said.

Since opening her business, the shop has experienced growth each year. With her innovative ideas, she surprises customers with something new every month.

“If someone tells you no, you’re asking the wrong person,” Sarah said.

This month, Sarah’s Espresso Café is celebrating Valentine’s Day with new heart-warming specials, including three new lattes, five new energy brews and other non-caffeinated specials.

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KATE MURPHY, Staff Writer

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