Des Moines man refreshes his life, restarts coffee company

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — TJ Rude feels grounded.

But in March 2021, life for the founder of local coffee company Northern Vessel was far from it: The startup shut down that month. Rude cited serious financial difficulties and privately wrestled with a battle against burnout.

Now Northern Vessel opened a new physical store near downtown Des Moines in November 2022 at 1201 Keo Way.

The Des Moines Register reports that Rude orchestrated the return of a coffee company, refreshed his life and reclaimed his Des Moines-based brand that he started with his best friend Alexander Prins and two silent business partners.

In 2017, Rude moved to the northern part of Orange County south of Los Angeles and worked at a coffee shop, riding his bike in shifts as a barista. After returning to his Iowa home, the Johnston native founded Northern Vessel in 2019.

Northern Vessel, which started as a coffee cart in downtown Des Moines, has opened a standalone location on Keo Way.

He originally wanted to sell coffee on the street, creating an elevated version of a lemonade stand, Rude said, because he didn’t like the typical coffee shop model at the time.

“Having lived in Los Angeles, I saw a lot of coffee carts,” Rude added. “That’s different. Nobody’s doing that here. What if we try that?”

Throughout its first year, the coffee company appeared at graduation parties, weddings, and other local events.

In 2020, Northern Vessel launched a local coffee delivery service, created an outdoor coffee cart on the city center street, and leased space at St. Kilda Cafe & Bakery at the Temple for Performing Arts while the restaurant It closed during the pandemic. The following year, in early January 2021, the Iowa Christian Academy student began to experience extreme burnout.

“By January, I was completely burned out. Everything went off the rails, so we had no resources for anything,” Rude said. “This whole thing was like, ‘Hey, let’s do this,’ and two weeks later, we were doing it.”

In March 2021, Rude decided to close the company, announcing the closure of Northern Vessel in a nearly minute-long video posted to social media platforms. In the post, Rude called the decision to close the “correct” decision and thanked metro-area customers for their support.

“I was totally exhausted, physically, emotionally, everything. Pretty much done,” Rude added of the decision to shut down. “We tried one more season on deliveries and then in March we said, ‘This isn’t working, we have to shut down.'”

After the company went out of business, Rude regrouped and began working for a Des Moines-based real estate development group. If he hadn’t shut down, he doesn’t believe the company would have revived and is in the healthiest place it’s ever been mentally, he said.

In the summer of 2022, Northern Vessel made a low-key return to the city’s cafe scene with pop-ups at Super Secret Brunch Club, the summer brunch feature at Secret Admirer cocktail bar, fronted by DMDT Hospitality & Lifestyle.

On July 31, Northern Vessel announced its new home at 1201 Keosauqua Way in the neighborhood near downtown Des Moines.

Rude first toured the location before the company’s original closure, again choosing the red brick location for its main corner near Mainframe Studios and Proteus headquarters.

“When I saw this in February, this part of the building, it was studs,” Rude said.

For Rude, intention is everything. Along with Prins and his business partners, Rude renovated the building and added to the store’s aesthetically conscious interiors, which include greenery, minimalist lines, light wood accents, art-style lighting fixtures and non-traditional seating options.

Northern Vessel aims to combine strong customer service with consistent, high-quality drinks to create a customer experience, he added.

The shop’s curated menu features its signature drinks: a cold brew, oat milk latte, three flavors of tea, and hot and cold coffee-free selections.

Northern Vessel’s slogan is “forward together”.

Before Northern Vessel closed, Prins kept two of the company’s 2020-era plants alive in St. Kilda.

“We said, ‘One day, we’re going to have a store. I don’t know when it will be. It might be five years, but we’re going to keep them alive,’” Rude said.

Like the vines that now sit at the top of the coffee company’s merchandise window, Rude grew up. She advanced, found solid ground and rested. Then he came back.

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