A Community Partner

Written By Kathy Gibbons

James Courtney didn’t start The Proving Grounds Coffee and Ice Cream in Milford to make a lot of money.

No, his goal was to enrich a community by starting a business he could feel good about.

“It’s like I tell my employees,” he says. “It’s not about the money, it’s about the people. If you focus on the people — that’s also my staff and the community — but if I focus on them, I don’t have to worry about money. If I support them, they’re going to support me.”

An entrepreneur from an early age — he had a powerwashing business with his dad at age 15 — Courtney was working as a stockbroker when he decided to go to college to “round off my education” and set a good example for his two daughters. After he graduated from Walsh in 2012 with a Bachelor of Business Administration, he weighed two options: use what he’d learned from his studies to return to the financial world or go into business for himself.

“Lo and behold, I went into business for myself,” he says.

He spent several months methodically noting possibilities and ideas in a journal he’s kept for years.

“I actually looked at becoming a veterinarian, opening a general store or even starting a small kids’ waterpark,” he says. “What it came down to is, ‘What am I going to get up in the morning and love to go and do, so it’s not a job, but it’s a life?’”

He and wife Jodie had frequently traveled in Europe and South America and had particularly enjoyed visiting cafés for coffee and dessert. He contemplated, “If I could recreate that feeling of 10 minutes of zen a day, I wanted to bring it to everyone else.”

He didn’t jump right in, though. Instead, he did some research, took a class on writing a business plan and opted for the coffee shop idea. He identified possible towns around Southeast Michigan where he might locate his shop, and used his experience from doing Walsh research papers to access free data and home in on communities where the population was growing, per capita income allowed for discretionary purchases and other factors that were favorable to a coffee shop’s success.

His wife is a financial planning analyst and was his sounding board along the way.

“She would kick the tires after I created it,” he says.

He also projected sales potential.

“During my business plan, I built out a two-year forecast model also broken down by month with all my market research done visiting at least 50 coffee shops in the metro area,” he says. “I was able to build an estimate of what I thought sales were going to be … I knew if I did it right and marketed it properly, the potential — I know a lot of small businesses close within the first three years — allowed me to invest a small amount of capital with very little risk.”

That’s what he did. With about $40,000 for electricians and plumbers and other jobs requiring a licensed professional, he did the buildout himself — remodeling, lighting, décor — working 16 hours a day, six days a week.

Opening four years ago, he immediately immersed the business in the community. Huron Valley Schools was first on his radar.

“Educators are completely undervalued and underpaid and, quite honestly, it’s striking to me that I let my child go somewhere 30 hours a week and some people have a big problem with paying them,” he says. “If someone’s going to be nurturing my kid and helping to raise my child, so to speak, in an educational platform, I want to support them.”

That meant free coffee and fundraisers in which Proving Grounds provides coffee and labor and proceeds go to the school district. The shop has held days where 10 percent of sales go to the schools.

“For individual schools, we say if any of you guys have any events, we’ll give you free coffee once a year — and anything else you want, we’ll give 40 percent off what a typical retail cost would be,” Courtney says. “We do that because if we can make their lives easier, we want to.”

Proving Grounds has also gained a reputation locally for being a go-to for other worthwhile causes in need of a donation, gift basket or certificate they can use to fundraise.

“It has helped me be successful, not because it’s a marketing strategy, but because we have lived it. We live in the community, the community knows us,” Courtney says. “People know they can come to us. We feel it’s almost our obligation.”

The Courtneys opened a second location in Royal Oak in 2020. It wasn’t the best year, dealing with the pandemic and resulting closures and slowdowns in business. And it limited the opportunities for community engagement that are part of the company’s DNA.

But as things get back to business as usual, Proving Grounds will, too.

“Walsh taught me also from a business standpoint — it’s not necessarily what I’m looking to get out of it (community engagement) but a byproduct — that it puts me in the forefront of a lot of people,” Courtney says. “So when people are out with their kids and have a decision to make to go to coffee shop A or coffee shop B, they might think about me.”

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