Tara Cronbaugh, owner of the Java House in Iowa City
Monday, August 31, 2015
Emily Archer

Tara Cronbaugh started her first business when she was 21 years old. She had a business plan, roughly $3,000 in her checking account, and the passion to create a community in Iowa City.

“I enjoy challenges,” said Cronbaugh. “If I did the same thing every day I think I would be bored out of my mind.”

Cronbaugh, owner of The Java House and Heirloom Salad Company graduated from the University of Iowa in 1995 with a degree in communications, but she took more business classes than communications classes.

On her first day of classes in the fall of ’93, Cronbaugh went into an upper-level entrepreneurial course and asked John Buchanan to sign her special permissions certificate so she could take the class. Buchanan signed her slip.

A semester later she used the same business plan she created in the entrepreneurial class to get grants from the state of Iowa to start The Java House.

“So without that class I would say it would’ve been much more difficult,” she said. “It certainly helped me figure out what is a business plan, how to do it.”

Cronbaugh wrote the plan with the intention of creating a business. After visiting her brother at Berkeley, she saw the progressive community and the coffeehouses in old warehouses with trees and chess sets, and she fell in love.

“I always had this vision of being able to sit next to somebody who had purple hair, or could be gay or lesbian, or a woman with a stroller, and you would always feel comfortable in your environment because everybody could fit in,” she said.

While Cronbaugh did not start off a coffee fan, she thought a coffeehouse would be the right venue to create the atmosphere she wanted. She even admitted that until five or six years ago, The Java House’s focus was not on coffee.

“I thought I could be the jack of all trades,” she said.  

Cronbaugh wanted to be good at all aspects of her business—service, price, product, and customer experience. She then took it upon herself to focus on what The Java House now prides itself on—unique coffee and freshly baked goods.

“In reality, you have to be exceptional and remarkable at one [aspect] to do well,” said Cronbaugh. “If you try to be exceptional at all of them, you’re going to fail. Since I discovered that, I now have really spent my time and energy on product.”

While she has no intention to expand outside of the Iowa City area, Cronbaugh stays busy with her eight locations, including the newest location in the Iowa Memorial Union. She plans to open up two more Java Houses and one Heirloom Salad Company location by the end of the year.

Inside The Java House on Washington Street in downtown Iowa City, students spread their homework across tables while a mother pulls her child from a stroller a few tables over. In the seating outside, a couple converses in Spanish, and a dog sits in wait for its owner.

“To me, that was my goal,” said Cronbaugh. “To make sure no matter what type of environment you were in, you never felt out of place.”