“I grew up in a small town in central Minnesota … before leaving to move to Hollywood at age 18,” he says. “I have lived all over the county and toured all over (as a musician). I literally grew up on the road.”
His time on the touring circuit influenced his outlook, showing him that cities both large and small can hold great potential. For example, Auburn, with a population of about 13,000, is small town with character and a strong community of people who are investing in its future. Downtown Auburn is especially poised for growth, as a company called Team Quality Services has recently pledged an investment of $2.56 million to move its headquarters there.
Speaking of moving, Kelly went on to work in tourism and hospitality for 15 years—which brought him to northeast Indiana. He’s lived in cities like Nashville, Seattle, San Francisco, and Oklahoma City and traveled the country supporting many other attractions.
You could say there’s been a consistent theme over the years. Through his travels, he’s had the opportunity to immerse himself in the cultures in each of these areas that have ultimately allowed him to establish great relationships in music and culinary communities. Most recently, he enjoyed a 4-year tenure at the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo as the general manager.
Upon relocation to the area, it didn’t take long for Kelly to realize that Northeast Indiana had great potential and heart—and that includes boosting entrepreneurship and innovation.
“If you truly have a dream, there’s an entire community (willing) to support you,” he says.
So he and Slentz did just that. They had a meeting of minds and fleshed out what the coë experience might look like. They’ve devoted the last year to planning these experiences, and “experience” is the key word here.
“We don’t believe we can ever replicate the night,” he says. “It’s like falling in love for the first time.”
For example, the duo have spent the past several months curating a series of pop-up style focus groups at The Deli at Sixth and Main in Auburn. A select group of people, with a diverse set of backgrounds, were invited for an evening engagement.
The real magic was in the lack of details provided. According to an Aug. 28 press release, “the intimate group of 40 guests were aware there would be food and music, and that was it. What they ultimately walked into was a unique, one-of-a-kind invitation into the minds of all these artists.”
What the first cohort of guests found was a nationally recognized chef mentoring an up-and-coming talented cook from Fort Wayne, a touring singer-songwriter from Nashville sharing the night with a local rising guitarist, and a creative artist painting live.
This all happened in a living room where food was cooked in front of the guests, songwriters performed on couches, and the visual artist captured the energy of the evening in the form of a painting.
In other words, it was dynamic and organic. There was no agenda, and that’s the beauty of it.
In Kelly words, it’s all about intimacy and allowing the artists to be themselves and transparent.
“The connection comes from the art,” he says.
Kelly hopes to continue the momentum of events like these and draw guests from around the region and beyond to participate.
“The plan is to do two to three experiences between now and next spring,” he says, adding that he hopes to ramp up the frequency in 2019.
The success of coë largely depends on people taking a chance. Kelly says the fact that they are “first to market” makes coë elusive, and some people are hesitant to take the leap.
“When people actually experience it, that’s when they get it,” he says.
But it doesn’t end there. Kelly says they are looking into the possibility of making coë a more regular part of the community. Their vision? “This (would) no longer be a ticketed event, but a 7-day a week storefront location in downtown Auburn that would showcase author readings and signings, culinary creations created in an open kitchen and cooked in front of you, combined with featured creative and musical artists.”
The ticket is $75 a person and includes an evening of artistic experiences and a 5-course meal, with and beer and wine sourced from local vendors.
See their Facebook page for a schedule of upcoming experiences.