One morning in March of 2015, Shirlee Jones was working her last baking shift at the former downtown-Bellingham cafe, Gypsie’s and Gingersnaps. She was preparing to leave for a trip across the Trans-Siberian Railway with her mother and sister. That morning, one of her regulars came in for his usual black coffee and mentioned he was closing the smoke shop he ran in a little space inside the Sycamore Square building in Fairhaven.
The news immediately sparked an idea in Shirlee.
“It hit me like a hot wash of water,” she says.
She signed the lease on the space the next day and left for the Trans-Siberian Railway two weeks later. Her cafe officially opened later that summer, on August 31, 2015.
Three and a half years later, the Shirlee Bird Cafe has become a staple of the Sycamore Square building.
It may seem like a spontaneous decision, but it took many years to arrive at this point. Shirlee attended culinary school in southern California. She also graduated from Western Washington University with bachelor’s degrees in international political economy and philosophy, with the intention of going into politics.
Throughout her last two years at Western, however, she was also a working apprentice with local bakery, Avenue Bread. She was continually navigating her desire to go out into the world and help others, both through studying politics and through the more tangible gift of feeding people.
Ultimately, the immediacy of the open space led her to choose her childhood dream of owning her own cafe.
“This seemed like a better way,” she says. “I access 200 people a day and get to chat with them about their feelings and lives. It’s awesome.”
Shirlee takes feeding people seriously and always wants her customers to get what they’re looking for, “because I want everything, and I want everybody to have everything,” she says.
This philosophy comes in part from the Shel Silverstein poem “Hug o’ War,” which describes a playful alternative to the game, tug o’ war, Shirlee says. The poem concludes with the lines: “…everyone grins, and everyone cuddles, and everyone wins.”
“That’s what I’m after,” she says. “Being a pastry chef, I am unabashedly pro-gluten and I also enjoy the mysteries of new gluten-free baking. Something for everyone is what I’m going for.”
Shirlee Bird Cafe includes a full espresso menu, fresh pastries she makes herself each morning, and full breakfast and lunch menus, including breakfast burritos, grilled paninis and salads. Shirlee places a premium on the quality of her ingredients, serving local and organic as much as possible.
There are several reasons for this. Shirlee grew up on a farm, where she was exposed to better alternatives to factory meat, which have stuck with her. She wants her business to be as ethically sourced as possible.
Shirlee also has a chef’s instincts: She would feel like a jerk, she says, putting processed meat on a sandwich with fresh local bread and cheese. She then pauses, searching for her deeper reasoning. “It’s important, because Laney just had a baby,” she says of one of her regular customers who also works in the Sycamore Square building.
Shirlee’s ethic boils down to this: She believes in nourishing food to support people in all aspects of their lives, and she believes each of her customers deserves that care.
Throughout the summer of 2015, while Shirlee was pulling up shag carpet, spackling the holes in the walls and readying the space to accommodate a full commercial kitchen, she was also meticulously crafting her dream cafe, both in look and feel.
Besides the big machinery, she purchased almost everything in the cafe from the ReStore, including her marble countertop. The metal and birchwood base that supports the counter was handmade by a 20-year old man she met early in the summer who wandered into the cafe looking to buy cigarettes. He ended up doing most of her wood and metalworking.
“When he asked me how high I wanted [the counter], I told him to come over and measure from my elbow down,” Shirlee says.
She leans her elbow comfortably on the counter to prove her point.
Three years later, Shirlee has what she calls “counter bravado,” saying she is much louder and more brash behind her marble counter than in the rest of her life.
In interactions with her customers, whether it’s an every-day regular or someone she’s meeting for the first time, Shirlee is always authentically herself.
“I don’t think I had as much hutzpah as I have now, three years ago,” Shirlee says.
She worked so hard to build the cafe exactly as she wanted it, that she couldn’t do anything but continue to claim that identity once it was open. The space is now like a second home, and she hopes it can be that welcoming for others too.
Shirlee is quick to acknowledge the enormous community of friends that helped her build the cafe.
“It took every friend and bit of know-how I’ve made in all my years here to make this happen,” she says. “Help came from everywhere and I’m still in awe of the experience. Building this took everything I had, and so much more. I could not have done it alone. I have to thank my stellar employees who work so hard to hold this dream with me.”
The Shirlee Bird Cafe is open every day from 7:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.