Cuppa Christ

Owner discusses Zootown Brew’s evangelical roots

Scott Klaudt realizes that the born again story became cliché sometime after Paul the Apostle emerged as its first protagonist. He also realizes the term might echo to some as a pejorative, but it’s still the only way to describe his life.

“I smoked weed and did every drug you could think of for five years,” says Klaudt, who adds womanizing to his list of old ways. “I pretty much flunked out of school because I was high all the time.”

Drug use cost the Missoula native his roster spot on the Montana State basketball squad. Klaudt ended up balling for a junior college in Yakima, Wash. One day on the court he noticed a strange feeling in his nose, so he went to the doctor. “She asked me, ‘Uh, do you do any drugs?’” Klaudt recalls.

Cocaine and Percocet snorting had completely destroyed his septum.

“There are consequences to everything, man,” he says. “You get lucky sometimes, but it always catches up.”

During his recovery, Klaudt found God. Now he’s the owner-operator of Zootown Brew on West Broadway, and running an overtly Christian business in the cultural center of a liberal college town. Meanwhile, he’s wrapping up an online master’s program at Crown College—an institution west of Minneapolis founded on fundamentalist biblical teachings. He’s also a member of Missoula Alliance Church, which holds similar views.

Yet, what’s attracting the most attention is the fact that Klaudt initially tapped a statewide community of evangelicals when looking for capital to open his business. Prayer letters written by self-styled church planter Gary Burdick of the Christian Missionary Alliance in Billings mention Zootown Brew as the beginning of a project to spread the Gospel in Missoula. According to the letters, the original plan called for the creation of a church, dubbed “Downtown Alliance,” to follow Zootown Brew’s opening by about six months.

“We are asking God to confirm this launch strategy by inspiring His people to give to support this project,” Burdick writes in a March 2008 entry. “There have been many signs along the way that He seems to be directing this effort. Thanks for praying for His confirming direction.”

All of the above has some Missoulians feeling uncomfortable. One unsuspecting Zootown patron says he felt “duped” by the joint’s secular veneer when he learned of the coffee shop’s drive to solicit funding from out-of-town evangelicals.

“I don’t think that people would be cool with it, just like I’m not cool with it,” says the coffee drinker, who asked the Indy to withhold his name. “There’s nothing indicating that it’s church-affiliated at all.”

Klaudt responds that Zootown Brew is a coffee shop and not a church. After appearing in the Christian Missionary Alliance prayer letters—publications he says are written in “Christianese”—he instead decided to take out a sizable loan to finance the business.

While Downtown Alliance didn’t financially support Zootown’s opening, Klaudt still plans to help launch the religious outreach project. Burdick, for instance, says his group would pay to rent Zootown Brew’s space once Downtown Alliance files for incorporation.

“Our involvement is really to get the church started,” Burdick explains. “The coffee shop is a way to get public traffic, if you will. As people learn where the spot’s at, it will, we hope, help create interest in the church.”

As far as the criticisms, Klaudt reports he’s caught flak from more than just secular Missoula liberals.

“Some Christians come in and are pissed because there aren’t crosses on the walls,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Dude, Jesus doesn’t care.’”

The Hellgate High graduate chose Missoula not only because it’s home, but also because it suits his needs. Permissive city codes on expression allow Klaudt to get the word out about Zootown’s events. The presence of higher learning, meanwhile, serves his intention of hosting debates, including one he plans to hold at the coffee shop between evolutionists and creationists.

“I’m not a liberal, but I love being in a liberal town because you can do whatever you want.” Still, Klaudt admits, “There will be people who read this article and never set foot in here.”

While Klaudt maintains that he’s in the business of java, and not saving souls, he says that wasn’t always the case. He admits coming into Christianity with the Falwell-esque belief that Jesus was a “white Republican” and, during this time, made the mistake of trying to morally instruct old partners in crime. 

“They were like, ‘Dude, we were tripping on mushrooms six months ago,’” Klaudt says. “They were right. I ruined a lot of good relationships.”

These days he’s more laid back, just trying to keep a business afloat in an oversaturated market, and how the public will react to his faith is obviously a point of concern. He recently had to replace a “You are beautiful to Him” engraving on the mirror of the women’s bathroom that a patron defaced.

“I’m not sure what kind of statement they were trying to make,” Klaudt says.

Faith notwithstanding, the market presents its own challenges. Butterfly Herbs owner Scott Lasy has seen numerous performance-based cafés go under over his long years downtown. He wishes Zootown Brew luck, but hopes the business and its owner will be up front about whatever religious aspirations it might hold.

“If you’re going to be a church, just say you’re a church,” Lasy says.

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