Twenty years ago, Joe Little III was on top of the music world. As lead singer of the Cleveland-based R & B group The Rude Boys, his hit song It's Written All Over Your Face was Billboard's 1991 single of the year.
Today, Little is taking his talents and aspirations in another direction, laying the foundation for a chain of inner city coffee houses he calls Urbean Joe's.
"Urban because you're African-American, you come from the 'hood,'" he explains. "Bean, the bean represents the coffee, and Joe, your name is Joe, and a cup of Joe. All this works together."
Little chats from one of the tables at the first of his two Urbean Joe locations, at East 148th Street and St. Clair Avenue in Collinwood. "I went to Shaw and to Collinwood. It's my home," he notes proudly.
His second shop recently opened on Larchmere Avenue near Shaker Square. His goal is to open several more in Cleveland and set the groundwork for a national chain.
"Why can't we be the black version of Starbucks?" he asks. "There is such a need in the city for places like this. We're here to promote a positive, relaxing atmosphere. This can be the new bars, places where people can come and network and learn."
Little selects, roasts, and blends his own coffee, and thinks he may be the only African-American entrepreneur in the country to do so.
He offers a full selection of those coffees at Urbean Joe's, along with laptops and free wi-fi.
"See, a lot of people in this neighborhood don't have computers," he points out. "They can come in here and learn, conduct a job search."
An ample stage welcomes local performers for weekly open mic nights called "Soulful Expressions." Singers, poets, and books clubs have already used the facility.
"I just want to be a venue, a vehicle for people to change lives," Little, now 42, tells WKYC. "You know, it's positive. And at the end of the day, that's all that matters to me."
During an hour, about a dozen customers come in, some for coffee to go, others to linger at the coffee bar or make use of the laptops. Among the customers are a few older folks, and one who brought a child.
"It's something positive," says regular customer Carlos Smith, perched at the corner of the coffee bar. "It's a positive start for our community because it's something by us, for us. You know, it makes a lot of sense."
Delores Davis, a few customers to Smith's left, agrees. "Joe's doing a lot for the community. We have enough bars, clubs, and bar-b-q shops. Joe was thinking outside the box, and that was excellent."
While opening any new business is a struggle, Little is banking on the experiences he had interacting with some of the country's most successful black businessmen to guide him.
"I've learned a lot being around a lot of big time entrepreneurs, such as P-Diddy, Jay Z, Russell Simmons," he says. "I've rubbed elbows and been in the same places as them, and I've just watched how they just vaulted to the top. Other than their careers, their initial passions, to something else. And I just made coffee my passion."
In addition to Urbean Joe's, Little is planning a new CD and has a part in an upcoming movie called "Blondie," about the life of Florence Ballard of The Supremes.
But he wants the coffee house ventures to succeed most of all. "You know, there is so much talk so little action," he says.
"I'm doing what is very necessary to help build up the city of Cleveland," Little says with passion, "by first establishing Urbean Joe coffee brand and franchise as Cleveland's own, and by training and creating Jobs for Cleveland's citizens."
"This is Cleveland's coffee. This belongs to my city. We need some uplifting here."