A follow-up to “What happened to LaserMonks?”

Bless the internet. I am constantly amazed at the things I see this wonderful network of computers do.

I got a notification that a new comment had been posted on my LaserMonks post, which you can read in full here, and lo and behold – an update of sorts! A commenter going by “faithfjord” shared a news story from a couple years ago from reporter Keith Strange with “The Mount Airy News”. Mt. Airy is a little town in North Carolina with a population of about 10,000. How “faithfjord” found this article… well, now you know why this post opened with me marveling at the power of the internet. Anyway.

The article, which you can see here, details the entrepreneurial endeavors of Vann McCoy, which the article notes he felt the call to serve, moved to Wisconsin, joined a Cistercian monastery, and went by Father Bernard. Guys. This is Father Bernard McCoy, the former CEO of LaserMonks. It’s him. He doesn’t name the company in the article but discusses his previous role both in a business and in the church. It’s him.

He explains what happened. He’s reflective and contemplative. It’s not terribly detailed. He says essentially that running the business and the monastery was a tremendous amount of work shared by too few people. They decided to close up the monastery. It was a crossroads for him and he left on a sabbatical soon after.

Wow. I had my answer. The answer to a great mystery that occupied my idle thoughts from time to time for years. People would comment on my original post and I’d be thinking about them again. (It always got a fair amount of traffic, always people led here by the same question I had. Googling “What happened to LaserMonks?”) Sometimes, the question was prompted by changing my printer ink. Or tasting the jelly I used to order from them with the cartridges. (A really delicious jam called Trappist which does a seedless raspberry that is fantastic, by the by.)

I was telling a friend about this yesterday and they asked if I was satisfied. It’s hard to tie my feelings to satisfaction. I just… I get it. I get being done. I get being in the thick of it and saying, “Enough, it’s over, I can’t do this anymore.” Is there more to the story? Maybe. But… that’s okay. I don’t need more than this.

Reading this article… I saw the pieces of the story of LaserMonks I hadn’t fully considered before. The toll something like that takes on a person. Work, even good work like the kind monks were doing in Sparta, is hard. There’s a human cost when you throw yourself into something so aggressively and fully. It’s not sustainable. You lose yourself along the way. Even if it is for good reasons.

I also feel really relieved. It’s so helpful to see someone who has walked down different paths and had his share of success… but who’s also been so willing to change course. Father – er – Mr. McCoy started out studying physics and astrophysics, shifted to other courses of study, and then became a man of the cloth. Then LaserMonks. And when he moved back to Mt. Airy after his sabbatical, he started up a business making moonshine. MOONSHINE! Is that not great?! They make whiskey and other goods, too. (You can’t take the entrepreneur out of the man, can you?)

I feel like my adult life has taken such a weird course. I didn’t go to college out of high school. I’ve had a bunch of odd jobs, a couple careers, few side ventures, lived in many places… And hey. Now I can proudly mark “some college education” when I fill out surveys. It’s just validating to see someone else with that same sort of path. Seeing someone take the time to figure out their life… and try again with a new thing. Someone who seems successful and happy.

I didn’t expect the LaserMonks story to wrap up in a way that had such a profound effect on me. But considering the subject matter, should I be surprised?

The “Mt. Airy News” article wraps up with a quote from Mr. McCoy saying he hopes he can inspire others to live well. You have, sir. At least this lady. Thanks for your openness and honesty. If I ever find myself in Mt. Airy, I’d like to buy you a drink.

Tea and monks: my visit to St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery

One of my favorite things I’ve ever written was a review of a restaurant. Yes, maybe it has something to do with food. Yes, I could talk about food forever. But I think there’s something wonderful about capturing an experience. A snapshot that’s more than a photo. The taste and smells and events all build a scene… I’d like to think my food reviews make me a better fiction writer, too. They’re helping me visualize better.

This review, dear reader, is a place you may recall. I talked about this place last year: the restaurant inside St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery.

Yelp made it one of their reviews of the day in May. It makes me happy to have tickled people with a more involved review. It’s definitely more elaborate than “service was terrible, we’ll never come back”.

Enjoy. Maybe you can come visit yourself!

Nestled in the quaint neighborhood streets of Harper Woods, among the homes and schools, is a luncheon experience you wouldn’t expect. When at the gates before The Royal Eagle Restaurant, you’re greeted by a sign requesting no cell phones, no shorts, skirts, or sleeveless tops, and no gum chewing. Upon entering, you will quickly realize you have left the line of small mid century homes behind you and stepped into the tranquil and ornate surroundings of St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery. This is where The Royal Eagle restaurant calls home. Twice a week, the parishioners open their doors for a midday Russian tea luncheon. The luncheon is one of only two limited weekly offerings the monastery has; the other being a dinner on Thursday nights, currently with a six week wait. The tea service does not have quite the waitlist, but is only served Tuesdays and Thursdays, from 11 p.m. to 2 p.m. with reservations required. I was intrigued by the whole concept and the juxtaposition of this restaurant inside a monastery inside a neighborhood, so I ventured in.

I was greeted by friendly waitstaff in traditional garb. Seated quickly, I was given a brief introduction to the restaurant, the menu of teas, and the set luncheon menu. The atmosphere is initially peaceful, though the conversation of the other patrons was lively; a cacophony of chitchat and sipped tea. The decor might be a turnoff for some, as it is reminiscent of the nicest room in someone’s Russian grandmother’s house. The tea selection is diverse, served quickly, and at the perfect temperature. I enjoyed a lavender earl grey tea while I waited for the first course, which was borscht. Borscht, for the uninitiated, is a soup featuring beets. It was delicious with delicate flavors. The beets were not overwhelming, and the fresh dill complimented the earthy tones in the dish.

The next round was several small tea sandwiches, featuring brie cheese, smoked salmon, black forest ham, and cucumber, of course. The brie was to be topped with a cranberry walnut sauce, but after a conversation with the waitress, she quickly accommodated me with those sandwiches sans nuts. Next, the main dish of the lunch, a green salad with a raspberry vinaigrette on the side of baked chicken on a stick in cream sauce. While the name lacked some flair, the chicken was moist and flavorful. The portions were modest, so some coming with an appetite would perhaps expect more.

Initially my server explained that dessert was a surprise, but considering my nut allergy, the surprise was quickly revealed: a peanut butter brownie and blueberry scone. Since my allergy wasn’t to peanuts, I proceeded. The scone wasn’t too dry or crumbly and was a perfect companion for tea. The brownie was likely the best brownie I have consumed to date. If you enjoy a fudgy brownie, with peanut butter frosting that actually tastes of peanut, you are in for a treat.

I definitely went into The Royal Eagle with some silly misconceptions in mind. They accept credit cards, which surprised me for some reason. They proudly display their, “People love us on Yelp!” sticker. And an overturned teaspoon revealed the answer to an age old question: yes, monks do shop at Ikea. While the decor may be more traditional, there is nothing dated or out of touch with the restaurant’s offerings. It delivers on making the lunch tea service a really special and high quality dining experience. I would recommend to give them a try, if this fine luncheon sounds like it would be your cup of tea.

A monastery in the middle of a neighborhood.

I think a brief review of this blog might reveal that I have a thing about monks. I don’t, really. Just have come across some interesting stories lately. This most recent brush was for a class assignment – to review a restaurant and write about it. My review of The Royal Eagle can be read on yelp here, but in the interest in not being redundant and talking about what makes this restaurant unique, lets review the facts.

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Fact 1: This restaurant is on the grounds of the St. Sabbas Orthodox Monastery. St. Sabbas is a Russian Orthodox church (see above). Monasteries are typically tasked with doing something to support themselves. This ranges from making beer or jellies to selling ink on the internet, as we previously talked about. St. Sabbas has a restaurant. They’re really popular. This is because the food is tasty but also due to limited availability. Tea is twice a week and dinner is just once, so the wait can be lengthy (right now it’s 6 weeks). There are rules to visiting The Royal Eagle Restaurant, due to their management. No cell phones, though I was told it was OK to take photos. Modest clothing options are enforced. The bathroom had a bag with a long skirt in it – not a forgotten garment, but something available if a guest came wearing something a touch too scandalous. At least one review I read noted that the reviewer was asked to wear the skirt (a bit of a feather in her cap). I wasn’t asked to rein it in when I came. I guess I’m not tempting to monks!

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Fact 2: The monastery is just on a street in an ordinary neighborhood. I found it driving around one day. In the photo you can see homes on the left and the monastery on the right. It was the craziest thing. And the building are all bright and colorful and the whole thing just stands out like Dr. Seuss set up a church in town. I mean no disrespect; it’s just kind of ornate and fantastical in a way that really is in great contrast to the mid century homes around it. Apparently they’ve been buying up the land for years.

Fact 3: It was great. I would have a picture of food here, but I was being respectful of the whole ‘no phones’ rule. It was good! Seriously, I ate what was the best brownie I’ve ever eaten. That not hyperbolic. It’s factual. I just love that this simply exists in my neighborhood. They have a little gift shop and the counter clerk was the chef. Another little surprise for my day. “Oh, that is a nice white coat you’re – wait. Wait a minute here.” Churches are littered all over the Detroit area, but I feel like stumbling on this monastery was really pretty special. The grounds are apparently beautiful in the summer and the inside of the church? Breathtaking.

There’s just something to be said for getting outside and exploring.

What happened to LaserMonks?

It’s curious, the life of monks. Religious observation often accompanied with a stoic silence. Leaving your life and worldly possessions behind to live simply and pray. As an outsider, I can’t help but find it all very interesting. I suppose that’s what initially drew me to LaserMonks back in the mid-2000s. To have this peculiar lifestyle collide with the internet seemed contradictory, though not expressly.

I should explain. LaserMonks was an online store where you could buy ink for your printer. It was run by the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank, in Sparta, Wisconsin. Most monasteries make food or beer to support the monks who live there and do good things for their communities. But the abbey behind LaserMonks saw a market in supplying ink to people. There’s a great amount of detail about this in the book about their operation, “LaserMonks: The Business Story 900 Years In the Making”. The book was penned by two consultants that came in to assist the monks with the fledgling business that eventually boomed online. They tell the story of their business model, guided by Saint Benedict, who was hospitable above all else, and frame the details of their success. They gave excellent customer service, supported their community, and eventually built on their e-commerce site to sell goods from other monasteries.

But after millions of dollars in revenue and ten years in the business it all suddenly stopped. The website was sold for parts and everything from the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank auctioned off, including the land the abbey sat on. In March of 2012 I got an email from them, explaining the business was under new ownership. Even the brand was given to the highest bidder.

 

What happened? I just find it shocking. One minute they’re filling out orders and taking prayer requests, the next the whole thing is shuttered. It doesn’t make sense.

The book talks so much about how they were committed not only to their customers, but the staff who worked with them. The consultants grew the business, bringing in many Monkhelpers, as they called themselves, to run the call center attached to the monks. These staff members were people within the Sparta community who needed help. Needed stable employment to support their families. The business cared about them deeply, training them to be compassionate and human. Often it is discussed in the book about the long term relationships they were building.

Their profits were doing good, too. They made many donations, supporting people who needed assistance in accordance with their mission. They were making an impact, and often they attributed their popularity to consumers that felt it was important to make a difference while they spend their money.

Granted, the book was not written by the monks. It was written by these consultants in the secular world. But even still, for people who talk so directly and emphatically about the future, investing in long term strategies, investing in PEOPLE… it just doesn’t seem to add up.

I know businesses close all the time. Just because you have the best intentions doesn’t mean you’re invincible to changing economic tides. But to have no explanation, no postmortem, no answers… It just flies in the face of everything the monks held true.

So, all we’re left with is to wonder why. Could something salacious or scandalous have happened? I dreamed up a hundred stories in my mind about how it all could have gone down. I even snooped around and emailed a journalist who wrote one of the only articles I could find talking about the demise of the monastery. In the article text, he more or less shrugs his shoulders and moves on.

I did email him about this. Told him that simply accepting “them’s the breaks” didn’t ring true to me. He didn’t reply. To be fair, I did tell him he could dismiss me as “some nosy lady from the internet”.

Maybe someday I can find out what really happened. I’m not sure if a sense of entitlement is a sin of some flavor, but I bought from LaserMonks for the right reasons. I liked these people and the idea that they wanted to help others. That you could straddle the realm of philanthropy with business and make the whole thing click. If I had to look at the whole situation, I suppose I’d have to come to the conclusion I was wrong. I just want to know how.