When the Northstar commuter rail made its first early morning runs into Anoka, county government workers from Big Lake and Elk River often arrived in town with an hour to kill before starting their workday.

"My mom and I had this thought: Why not provide them a place where they can warm up to a good cup of coffee and homemade baked goods?" recalled Kate Roeger. "It seemed crazy -- because if this was such a good idea, why hadn't somebody done it?"

Coffee Caboose, an independent and very homey shop across the street from Anoka's Northstar station, sells soups, cookies and cinnamon rolls made from scratch and unique drinks like the "Anoka Mocha" and "Commuter Cappuccino." But few of the folks who frequent the year-old coffee shop are daily train riders.

Roeger and her mother, Shannon Hirsch, a long-time Anoka County probation officer, have built a faithful customer base that, thus far, has exceeded expectations -- enough so to make them plan to stay in business for the long haul. But they say they've had to do it without a Northstar influx.

Roeger said they were warned. When she and Hirsch began planning their business, they called Northstar officials, seeking advice. The Northstar folks warned them that others -- in Elk River and Fridley -- had attempted coffee stands near the commuter-rail stations with little success.

They brought a cart over to the train station, offered samples -- and were ignored, Roeger said. People were in a hurry to catch their train or get to work. They walked by. Briskly.

They consulted state Rep. Jim Abeler, who owns property across from the Anoka station, including Northstar Office Park and the 4th Avenue building that now houses Coffee Caboose and several other tenants.

"I never have told any of my tenants to rely on Northstar for business," Abeler said.

"Northstar was a great idea that would have been greater had it been approved in 2002, when the plan was to build a commuter line from St. Cloud to Minneapolis for half the price," Abeler said. "But unless it's extended to St. Cloud, the line -- and the other cities on it -- will never reach potential. It's still a good idea, but I would never encourage a tenant to risk a business on Northstar."

Roeger and Hirsch instead have risked their business on homemade lemon poppy-seed bread and chicken wild-rice soup and a sign that reminds customers: "Life is Short. Eat Cookies."

Food is the key

The place, once part of an old sawmill, was decorated by Hirsch. There are four tables, a comfortable bench and framed pictures of an old locomotive and boxcar on the wall. They decorate for the holidays, especially Halloween. (Anoka is the self-proclaimed Halloween Capital of the World, after all.)

"It would be nice if we could showcase the train for activities," Roeger said, referring to Northstar. "But the food seems to be our biggest seller. And that's more important than the train."

Most of their customers are locals, and most are more interested in the food than coffee, Hirsch said.

For a mother-and-daughter team who had tinkered informally with their own catering business for several years, specializing in homemade treats wasn't surprising.

"We had to learn to emphasize the coffee," Hirsch said.

Getting down to business

They also had to learn about business -- the licensing, sewer and water assessment fees. Abeler said he's been amazed at the way the duo has persevered.

"They've worked hard and have had to make their own breaks," Abeler said.

Roeger, 31 and the single mom of a 4-year-old, is a student at St. Cloud State, working on a criminal-justice degree. She would love nothing more than to see Northstar extended to St. Cloud, because it would make getting to school that much easier. It also could eventually be good for business.

"Mom and I decided last week what we had to do," Roeger said. "We've researched what it would take to make this a success. We've done better than expected and we'll build on that, maybe expand the place."

Meanwhile, Northstar will decide this month if the train will lower fares, by as much as $1, beginning in August, to attract customers.

"We want Northstar to do well," Roeger said. "That can only help us.

"For now, we're banking on our cinnamon rolls."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419