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True Grinnellian: Sam Cox

Photo by Helena Gruensteidl
Cox (right) serving coffee and smiles to the Saints Rest crowd.

By Mineta Suzuki

If good coffee is a pleasure, Sam is a treasure. Sandra “Sam” Cox has been living in Grinnell for her entire life of 48 years. She has owned Saints Rest, the only coffee shop in town, since 2013.

“My favorite part of the town is a sense of community. It’s really beautiful, safe and diverse because of the College,” Cox said.

Though she has long put her roots down in the community, she was not always an expert in running a coffee shop.

“I got a degree in fashion merchandising as I thought I would like to be in the fashion industry. I think I just thought really small, which is sometimes a problem with the small-sized town. You don’t always learn to dream big, … but the world is a pretty big place and you should think bigger,” Cox said.

But she finds joy in her new life project, establishing Saints Rest as a communal space for everyone. And it has been successful so far.

“I get to know a lot of people. Stemming from college students that are 18 years old through my retirees that are in their 70s, 80s and 90s to the new high school students. … I get to develop long-term relationships,” Cox said.

Certainly there are challenges to maintain a local business. In such a small town like Grinnell, the fear of big chain competition is dire.

“The rumor [that Starbucks might open in Grinnell] has circulated a couple times, and it is circulating again. I have heard that when Starbucks comes into communities like ours, the [local] coffee shop actually ends up doing a little better, simply because people tend to support that coffee shop even more. But to be honest, I am of the other opinion that it would only hurt my business,” Cox said.

Indeed, neighboring towns such as Newton and Marshalltown face similar problems. But for now, she aspires to improve things inside her own café.

“I think dogs should be allowed. That’s my newest complaint. Sometimes I wish [Saints Rest] were bigger, simply because … it gets crowded in here and we don’t have enough space. I always think about what we can do to grow our business,” Cox said.

That is why she keeps coming up with new baked goodies and supported the reopening of the 1854 Deli, which serves fresh salads and sandwiches, making Saints Rest an attractive venue for non-coffeeholics.

Additionally, she strives to do more with the cafe, by hosting various events such as live concerts and art workshops, as well as political gatherings. Recently, for example, there was a community meeting at Saints Rest in response to the Trump administration’s executive order on the immigration.

“I think part of it is because [Saints Rest] is considered more of a neutral area. … So anything that anybody reaches out to me on, I try to be very supportive and if I can donate my time and product, I will. … I just feel like that’s one way of giving back,” Cox said.

Through her intimate interactions with the customers, Cox keenly observes general demographic changes in students.

“In my opinion, there are a lot more kids with discretionary income, who have more money to spend in my shop, so I’m very fortunate for that, and who don’t necessarily have to have those jobs outside of class. … The employee pool that I used to have is getting smaller and smaller, too,” Cox said.

However, what remains the same, from her point of view, is the academic rigor of the College.

“Do I think your workload is crazy? Yes. I’ve seen what you guys do. That takes a special person to put your nose to the grindstone and turn out that stuff,” Cox said.

Whether as fuel political activism or a guilty escape from homework, Cox will continue to give students and community members a warm hug in a mug.

“We are very community driven. We are very fortunate that all different kinds of people come in here and that it has become a hubbub for activity.”

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  • J

    Jeff Dickey-ChasinsFeb 28, 2017 at 2:29 pm

    Sam is the best, and Saints Rest is the best. I travel far and wide in my job, and it’s always a relief to come back to Saints Rest and their wonderful coffee community. We’re extremely lucky to have it!

  • D

    Deb ShearerFeb 25, 2017 at 11:09 pm

    I ad a new customer in our store today, buying a gift for his wife, he was traveling back home, to Sweden. He said he really liked our community. He commented on the fact that there are a lot of private business owners, very few Hain operations. He thought, that it reminded him of home (Sweden). He also commented on how lucky we are to have such a great coffee shop. “Great coffee” he said it twice. Expressing how much he really enjoyed his experience there. He was headed home after being here on business for 2 weeks.
    Good job Sam, for making such a good impression! He said, it reminded him of home.
    Bill’s Jewelry Shop