Community and coffee: Popular Fiddlehead owner sees hope amid health battle

·4 min read

Apr. 9—Like many business owners, Patrick Phelan and his sister-in-law Sarah Phelan struggled to keep their two Fiddlehead Coffee Co. shops afloat during the pandemic. But they did it.

The co-owners and a core staff worked hundreds of hours and added coffee bean delivery to keep their Kutzky Park cafe open while temporarily shutting the doors of their main location at 412 Third Ave. SE.

By November, Patrick Phelan was tired, though he felt relieved to make it through 2020 relatively unscathed and with his dream business still in business.

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"Then 2020 had to kick us one more time," remembers Sarah Phelan.

Patrick woke up one day with what he thought were COVID symptoms that grew worse until one side of his face became paralyzed. Afraid that he was having a stroke, he went to Mayo Clinic's emergency room.

While it was determined he was experiencing symptoms from chronic Lyme disease, the medical tests also discovered something unexpected and much more serious.

A golf ball-sized tumor was found wedged by his carotid artery, optic nerve and pituitary gland in his brain. While it is not cancerous, the size and placement of the tumor would have soon caused a stroke.

"The doctor tells me that I should throw the tick that gave me Lyme's disease a party, because it saved my life," said Patrick as he sat laughing near Fiddlehead's coffee roaster at its Third Avenue location.

The tumor and its treatment took Patrick away from his favorite place on Earth — Behind the Fiddlehead counter serving and talking with customers.

"I had to take a back seat in the business. I went from a very public life to convalescing at home. It was a really jarring transition," he said.

To continue to help the business, Patrick took over all of Fiddlehead's solitary coffee roasting duties in the then-closed downtown location. The process became a time of mediation for him and an temporary escape from worrying about his health, his family and his business.

"I needed a way to feel normal. I pontificate a lot about how the preparation of our products are in service of creating a community, they're not just a commodity. Roasting was a way to still feel connected to community, connected to business and do something I love," he said.

While he was roasting, his business partner and friend Sarah rallied with his personal partner, Samantha Jackman, to keep Fiddlehead rolling without him in his usual role.

Both locations are now open. A new food menu crafted by Patrick was just introduced at the Avani location this week.

Anna McFall is one of the people keeping Fiddlehead brewing as the Avani location manager. She credits Sarah and a very dedicated staff with holding things together, though it's weird without Patrick in the middle of the action.

"He's a community nucleus. People orbited around him. He pulls people together. That's his calling. He has endeared himself and the business to whole communities in Rochester," McFall said.

She was living in California when she heard about her friend's condition. Within a few days, she was driving cross-country to help where she could. Patrick asked McFall to take some of the work off of Sarah's and Samantha's plates. That turned into her moving to Rochester and taking on her first managing job.

Fiddlehead regulars, including Mayo Clinic staff, as well as other Rochester restaurateurs have been boosting Patrick and his family with expert medical advice, emotional support and even painting a surprise portrait of Patrick.

Jennifer Becker and Erik Kleven, who own Rochester's Bleu Duck Kitchen, dropped off a steady stream of meals for months to Patrick and Samantha.

Meanwhile, the business that Patrick literally greets each day with, "Good morning, Coffee Shop, I love you" is returning to some post-pandemic normalcy.

The downtown Flats location is now open with limited hours and will soon be back to a normal schedule. Live music on Saturdays was recently re-introduced there to a very emotional crowd.

"When Jeremy (Jewell) started to sing, everyone in the place immediately started to cry. Everyone missed hearing music live so much," Sarah Phelan said.

Meanwhile, Patrick has continued to roast coffee beans, even right before his Gamma Knife procedure this week to treat his tumor. With a positive prognosis, he hopes to be roasting again as soon as next week.

He and Sarah emphasize that while this time has been difficult, their overall feeling is hopeful, thanks to a community of friends, customers and peers supporting them.

"Coffee beans, like grapes, bear a sweeter fruit when there is struggle. We have surely struggled.... and are still in the midst of struggling," said Patrick. "But the fruit of that is really beautiful and humbling and hopeful. This is ultimately a story about going through hard things. But if you have a community who loves you, you can get through those hard things."

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