Brandon Segotta thought it would be funny to make "ipromisetoneverbuystarbucksagain" the Wi-Fi password at Verona Coffee Co., a new coffee shop in downtown Collinsville.
The manager had no idea that Starbucks would become engulfed in a national controversy two days later, when two black men were arrested at a Philadelphia location for sitting at a table without making a purchase.
It was a perfect opportunity for Segotta and his fiancee — Leah Thomason, who helps him at Verona — to emphasize that everyone is welcome at their coffee shop, and they can stay as long as they want.
"I feel like Collinsville really needed something like this, especially for people who aren't 21 yet," said Thomason, 24. "There were just bars downtown. Now people can come here and study or just hang out."
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Verona opened April 10 in the front half of a storefront building at 101 E. Main St. The back half is occupied by Bert's Chuckwagon, a popular restaurant specializing in barbecue and Mexican food.
The coffee shop serves a variety of espresso-based hot and cold drinks — lattes, mochas, cappuccinos and Americanos — as well as Firepot nomadic teas and flavored iced teas.
"We partner with Kaldi's Coffee in St. Louis," said Segotta, 35. "They're our supplier and our technical support."
Verona also offers pastries baked by Segotta's sister, Shannon Conner. Her husband, Joel Conner, is the son of Roger Conner, longtime owner of Bert's Chuckwagon.
Shannon and Joel Conner own the coffee shop and the building. They formerly used the front half for a T-shirt store and later their photography business.
In the past two weeks, Verona customers have included stylists from Lox Salon Spa at 105 E. Main St.
"The girls are big coffee addicts, so they have enjoyed being able to go right next door," said Lox owner Lindsi Shafer, 30. "It's saved them trips to Starbucks."
Segotta trained and worked as a coffee roaster and barista in Colorado in his teens and early 20s before starting a flooring business with a friend and later selling insurance. But he never lost his passion for coffee.
That was evident recently when Segotta explained how "single-origin" drip coffee served at Verona differs from its house blend.
"That means it comes from one country in particular — right now that's Peru — and it comes from one farmer," he said. "It has more depth and a more distinct flavor because it's not a mixture of beans from different places.
"The one we have now has berry and chocolate notes to it. It's not a flavored coffee, but the volcanic activity in that region has enriched the soil."
Segotta moved to Collinsville last year and spent nearly four months renovating the front half of the Conner building. He replaced the flooring, built a counter out of knotty pine and topped tables with art-deco tiles.
Verona also has comfy couches and chairs and a high-top bar with electrical outlets for laptops. Walls of windows give customers panoramic views of Main and Center streets.
The pastry case features rotating flavors of cookies and scones, but it always contains blueberry scones with lemon icing, as well as peanut butter energy bites (peanut butter, chocolate chips, oats, flaxseed, coconut and honey rolled into balls).
"My sister has some great recipes, and she's teaching me how to make them right now," Segotta said. "We're hoping to get some savory breakfast food in the morning, too."
Also on the chalkboard menu are Italian sodas, hot chocolates and flavored steamers.
On a recent morning, Jane Akin stopped in Verona for the first time with her husband, Tony. She ordered her old standby, a caramel latte, and loved it.
The couple had heard about the coffee shop from The Collinsville Connection Facebook page, where it has been getting rave reviews from local residents.
"I'm happy they're here," said Jane Akin, 54, of Maryville. "There's no place else to get coffee. I'd much rather patronize a small, locally-owned business than a mega-million-dollar national company."
Verona's hours will be 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays until it becomes more established.
Collinsville has a strong Italian-immigrant heritage, and the city attracts tens of thousands to its annual Italian Fest. The coffee shop is named after a city in Italy.
"It's where Romeo and Juliet lived," Segotta said.
Insurance agency face-lift
They call themselves "three old chicks and a chickadee."
The chickadee is Christy Lexow, 36, who last year bought Maryland Moats Insurance Agency, a 92-year-old business in Granite City. The old chicks are Molli Beck, Jan Bain and Debbie Householder, who worked for former owner Ken Moats.
The three women stayed on with Lexow, helping her merge her Edwardsville agency into Maryland Moats Lexow Insurance, and they seemed to have a good time doing it.
"(Lexow is) a young fireball," said Beck, 65, office manager. "We went to a computer system, which we had never done before. We gutted the entire building, and we went paperless. We've accomplished a lot in a year's time."
Renovation of the 1926 brick building was perhaps the most challenging part. Workers tackled half at a time, and the women never missed a day of work.
One of the renovation highs was when workers removed a wall of paneling and discovered the original picture window with old-fashioned lettering, glass blocks on either side and a few unexplained bullet holes.
One of the lows was having to replace the window.
"We couldn't keep it because it was pane glass," Lexow said. "It wasn't tempered. You just couldn't have that in the insurance business. You can't take that risk."
Workers also removed pink and blue shag carpeting and mallard-duck wallpaper and decorated in a modern, quasi-industrial style with tall ceilings, wood floors and sliding doors.
Lexow and Beck filled the office with vintage items, such as a 1905 cash register made of wood and metal; a toy fire engine that belonged to Lexow's father, Larry; and a 1963 Corvair hood that serves as a message board.
A wall in the small conference room is covered with license plates from all 50 states. Beck's husband, Kendall, welded together 1931 Model A Ford wheels to form the table base. Chairs are made of old metal signs.
Focal points of the kitchen include a stoplight and railroad-crossing sign. The bathroom has a Harley-Davidson theme. Up front, the women make popcorn in a reproduction antique popcorn machine.
"It's different than most insurance agencies," Beck said.
"We're all women, and we try to think outside the box," Lexow added.
The business opened in 1926 as Maryland Realty, named for the Maryland neighborhood of Granite City. It later expanded to include Madison County Mutual (now Madison Mutual) Insurance products.
After a couple of owners, farmer Ken Moats bought the business in 1985. He operated it until March of last year.
"Ken came to me and said, 'Hey, do you want to buy my business?'" Lexow said. "I wanted to grow, and I said, 'Why not? We'll see what happens.'"