Mama D’s Recipe for the Successful Community Coffee Shop

November 9, 2023
Photo by Tracy Shilobrit Mama D's Coffee in Wales

When Diana Markus became an empty nester after her three children were grown and she had volunteered for every cause imaginable, she decided to take the leap and open the coffee shop she had been dreaming of for years. The first step was finding a location. She wanted a place with character. Everyone told her she had to find a location on a busy street to ensure a steady flow of customers. But Diana hated the strip mall locations and instead found a charming vintage former bank building at 104 W. Main Street in Wales that spoke to her. This was the beginning of Mama D’s Coffee in May of 2012. 

It wasn’t on busy highways 18 or 83, it was tucked in the small community’s quiet Main Street. But Diana saw that it was just steps from the popular Glacial Drumlin State Trail and a few blocks from Kettle Moraine High School. She wagered – correctly – that she could draw in the high school kids and the bike riders and hikers, as well as people who lived and worked nearby. 

Then, she got to work creating her vision of the community coffee shop where people want to stop in regularly for their favorite beverage, food or entertainment. Diana has a bachelor’s degree in dietetics from Ohio State University, and before starting her family, she worked as a buyer in a hospital dietetics department. Those skills came in handy when she developed her menu and selected her food and beverage suppliers. Her daughter helped her with marketing, and before long, she had a bustling business with many regulars. Among the eclectic group of regulars are the ROMEO’s – Retired Old Men Eating Out – who have been coming in weekly for years and occupying the same corner table. 

Barista at Mama D's Coffee

“We pride ourselves on knowing what each of our regulars likes to order so they don’t even have to ask us,” Diana said. “There are about 30 high school kids in here every day after school during the school year,” Diana said. “They walk over from the high school after classes, and their parents pick them up here later.” 

Perhaps it was her many years volunteering for Young Life, a Christian youth group, that helped her realize that high school kids would be a good target audience for a coffee shop while others might have overlooked them. The name “Mama D” actually started as a nickname that the youth group kids gave her. Interestingly, one of her former Young Life kids built the tables at the Wales location as a community service project. 

The Wales location offers live music on Thursday evenings (plus weekends in the summer) that usually features her husband, Stan, who is a surgeon and a classical guitarist, often with a few of his musician friends. There are tables for outdoor dining in the warmer months, including a nice backyard complete with a playhouse for the kids, as well as a small room available for rent for events like birthdays and baby showers. There’s even a cute little camper they use as a food truck for local events called Mama D’s Mobile. The shop also offers a variety of products from local vendors, including honey, ketchup, jewelry, ceramic mugs and other items. 

Mama D's owner, Diana Markus
Pink Room available for rent at Mama D's Coffee
Stan Markus Live at Mama D's

In 2015, Diana opened her second location at 928 N. Hartwell Avenue in Waukesha. Once again, she chose an older building with good bones that is not directly on a high-traffic street but is just off Main Street. It’s downhill from the Ethnos360 Bible Institute and a few blocks from Carroll University, where college students can easily walk down to Mama D’s for food and coffee. It also draws neighbors and workers from nearby businesses, and there is a train track next door, which seems to help with advertising as people are stuck right in front of the shop every time they have to wait for a train. “The train engineer used to call us and place a lunch order, stop the train and pick up his lunch while stopping traffic,” Diana said. “I’m not sure he was supposed to do that, but he did.”

This location is much smaller than Wales, with only a handful of tables, so the customers tend to come and go rather than lingering for a few hours like they do at the Wales location, but Diana says the culture is the same. “It’s evolved into what it wants to be,” she said. 

Together, Mama D’s Coffee now employs 38 people between the two locations. Each shop has a manager and an assistant manager, which lightens Diana’s workload and allows her to work on the business, rather than in the business like so many coffee shop owners. 

She commented, “I have great employees. You can feel it in the air when you walk into a coffee shop, and the employees actually want to be there and provide good service, and they’re glad to see you. That’s a differentiator these days. It should feel like sunshine when you walk in.” 

At both shops, the quiche, oatmeal, sandwiches and egg bakes are made from scratch, while cookies and other items are sourced as dough and baked at the shops. They serve Valentine Coffee from Milwaukee, Soup Market soups from Bay View and other mouth-watering baked goods are sourced mostly from Waukesha County vendors. At the Waukesha location, baker Debbie creates crazy-good pumpkin chocolate chip muffins, banana chocolate chip muffins and other sweet treats. Of course, there are gluten-free food options.

What’s next for Mama D’s? “Well, it’s definitely not expanding,” Diana commented. She had a third location in Genesee Depot from 2016 – 2021 and found she was running herself ragged between the three locations, so she shut that one down. “Knowing when it’s too much and knowing your boundaries on the personal side is really important,” she added.

Diana explained, “I’ve had many people over the years begging me to open coffee shops in other small towns in the area and if I were younger, I would! I think there is definitely an opportunity for the community coffee shop in lots of our smaller towns if someone wants to pursue it. I see it as a community service.” 

She may be onto something if her success is any indication. Mama D’s has outlasted numerous coffee shops that have either closed or changed owners multiple times over the past 11 years. “It’s hard work. You’ve got to have the heart and soul for it, and you have to hire the right people,” she advised. 

Still, Diana is a fountain of ideas to improve her shops and try other forms of entertainment. She mused that a poetry night might be offered at Wales at some point, and she would love to have every barista know how to make Abraham Lincoln on top of a latte. 

“The best moments are when you’ve hired the right people, and things run smoothly, and I get the feedback that people love it,” Diana said. “When employees move on, and it’s time to replace them, there’s a little stress, but I’m a woman of faith, and I feel like the Lord provides the right people at the right time.”