Bad idea or pure, ground genius?

by Brian Clarey

“So let me get this straight,” I said to my friend Dusty Keene a few months ago, when the idea was still new in his head and his enthusiasm at its most potent.

“You’re going to open a coffee shop… in your office?” I asked him. He responded as if it was the most natural thing, the most logical development, in the history of the world.

“Of course!” Granted, it wasn’t the worst idea I’d ever heard from Keene, not by a longshot. And that demented brain of his has come up with more than a few magnificent works.

The company he started in 2005, now known as Keen Innovations, started as a sort of video-scrapbook production company, interviewing the kids at regular stages of their lives with questions designed by educators and child psychologists. He applied the concept to the state’s foster system, and now has branches in three states that help children find homes. And he’s got a full-service video-production studio right there on the corner of Walker and Elam, turning out commercials, music videos, short films and contract work, a space which is now also a coffee shop, Common Grounds. This surely must be some kind of first.

It also has the only straight-up coffee counter on the Corner.

Keene’s wife, Michelle, did a few tours at Starbucks years ago, and she knows to buy the coffee beans while they’re still green and have them roasted locally. It’s a solid product, with every variation we’ve all come to expect from our baristas. They’ve got local baked goods too, the kind people make in their home kitchens.

But there’s more to it than that. Dusty’s commandeered one of the few parking spots to create one of the best people-watching spots in town. Inside, a conversation pit takes up a corner and a couple booths line up by the other window. The theme on the chalkboard wall is currently, “Before I die I want to…”; a colorfully scrawled bucket list takes up the rest of the space.

“I wanted to make a space that’s interactive,” Keene says, “that encourages free thinking. In here, you’ll feel free to create. You can get some inspiration if you need it, and give some if you got it.”

There’s local art on the walls, naturally, but also one of the Triad’s few public airhockey tables. In the back, by the production offices, there’s a free pool table. But in the middle of the space there is the studio, shut off, wired for light and sound, a business unto itself, trying to co-exist with a coffee shop.

I just don’t understand how that works. “It’s actually the best part,” Keene said to me. “Think about it. This is to my knowledge the only video studio/coffee shop in existence.”

He said he can do live feeds from the studio to the screens throughout the shop, ideal for entertainment, spoken-word performances, all kinds of music.

“One word,” he says. “Videoke.” Like the man himself, the idea is out of the box, more than a little counterintuitive and artistically ambitious. And it just might be crazy enough to work.


Common Grounds; 602 S. Elam Ave., Greensboro; 336.698.3888