Local coffee shops raise the bar
JONESBORO – In a time when craft and speciality coffee seems to be a major trend, a variety of passionately run local coffee shops conduct business in Jonesboro and beyond throughout the Delta.
As a consumer, one’s options prove numerous when deciding what coffee to pick up on a morning drive to work or on an afternoon study break. The consumer might choose a coffee giant like Starbucks, but the consumer might also know of a place in town that feels just like home.
Brian Nobles took over operations of the Edge Coffee House in August. The Edge sits right off the edge of Arkansas State University’s campus and the shop actually used to be a residential home.
“An experience,” Nobles said. “It’s really about the experience that you get from a mom and pop type shop. The charm and the quality and the characteristics of an old actual house turned into a coffee shop gives it all the unique characteristics.”
The Recovery Room, in downtown Jonesboro, also boasts an atmosphere that is welcoming to people of all backgrounds. Since the Recovery Room is a small locally owned shop, employees do many different things to help out the shop.
Pat Warren, a woman of many trades at the shop (which includes making the pastries), said some customers first assume the Recovery Room is too fancy of an establishment for the everyday coffee drinker. But in reality, the shop opens its doors to anyone of any background.
Warren describes the Recovery Room as a home for students and businessmen alike, and really anyone who enjoys a good cup of coffee or a great meal.
“Downtown Jonesboro has its own unique atmosphere,” Warren said. “You’ve got the old buildings. We get a lot of students that like to come in and study. We have the nice soft seating, the sofas and we have Wi-Fi. We’ll have students that come in first thing in the morning and maybe sit here most of the day and sit here and study while drinking coffee.”
The culture and atmosphere represents one aspect of a local coffee shop, but the product has to be good too. A lot of local coffee shops also use locally roasted coffee; the Edge is no exception.
“We use local, local as in Arkansas. We use an Arkansas based company out of Eureka Springs,” Nobles said. “They’re called Mountain Bird Coffee. They’re really great, nice people. They’re fair trade, they’ve got a great product and we’re proud to be able to use something from Arkansas.”
The Recovery Room also fits the bill of a shop that uses local coffee. Warren said that just because coffee is locally roasted does not mean it automatically becomes good tasting coffee. The fact that locally roasted coffee can be great-which she said the Recovery Room’s coffee is excellent-truly makes the idea of locally roasted coffee so special.
Also based in Jonesboro, the Coffee Gallery prides its use of Westrock Coffee. The Coffee Gallery’s owner Nicole Townsend holds family ties to Westrock. Westrock’s owners use to own Alltel, which was based in Little Rock. Townsend’s dad worked for Alltel and a connection was born.
“We were really excited to partner with a local coffee roaster that also has ties with my family,” Townsend said. “We’ve known them since before I was born. We have a really close connection with the owners of Westrock. Their coffee is just wonderful. It’s roasted in west Little Rock. They bring it right up to us so everyone gets fresh roasted coffee.”
While the main attraction of many local coffee shops might be the coffee itself, a lot of shops put a major emphasis on food. The quality food just adds another level to the overall offerings of a locally run coffee business. For the Edge, the food aspect came naturally.
“For my partner, my wife, that’s her realm,” Nobles said. “That’s her forte. That’s what she does and she does it really good. We want to ramp up the other areas of this restaurant that makes it more appealing to a broader audience. So we’ll have the coffee and we want to make the food something that makes it stand out by itself.”
The Edge takes food to another level when it comes to the idea of local. The Edge boasts multiple gardens in the back, growing a wide array of foods including mushrooms and lettuce to use in dishes made in the kitchen.
The Edge also plans to put a bar in the upstairs section of the house. Nobles’ background comes from the restaurant and bar industry; adding a bar to the Edge just adds something else to attract a broader consumer spectrum.
Mugs Cafe, a coffee shop based in the historic downtown area of North Little Rock known as Argenta, serves breakfast and lunch all day. Owner Michael Hickmon commented on just how important food is to Mugs. Hickmon said food stands as a way to differentiate coffee shops in the market and provide something else than just coffee. Mugs hosts an event every Saturday and only on Saturdays where customers can purchase all you can eat pancakes for $6. Most Saturdays, customers also find a special flavor of pancakes available like cinnamon roll pancakes or many others.
“We wanted something, especially on a Saturday, a special something that is unlimited,” Hickmon said. “(We wanted) something you can only get once a week and you can only get it here. It creates an excitement we feel like with customers.”
The Recovery Room also puts an emphasis on food.
“We have an award winning chef,” Warren said. “At 5 p.m. we turn into fine dining. We have excellent food. It’s needed. We serve duck here. We have a great Sunday brunch here with crepes. You have to be skilled to call yourself a fine dining restaurant.”
Involvement in the community represents another aspect that makes local shops stand out from national chains.
“We’re really involved in the community,” Townsend said. “For example, we have a Santa Claus coming to let the kids take free pictures. On top of that, we do a lot of donations. We donate to a lot of the charities, the marathons, the golf tournaments, the local schools, the football programs and everything like that.”
Hickmon said just simply shopping local also supports the local community.
“In just kind of the movement of shopping local is (the fact) that you’re supporting your local community,” Hickmon said. “When you get a national chain, the coffee is not crafted locally. It’s crafted in some other state and shipped here. That was a big thing for us. From the actual coffee roasting side, we’re creating quite a few jobs here locally. There’s a huge difference between craft coffee and coffee you would get from a really large chain. We put a lot of tender, love, and care into all of our processes from coffee selection, from the bean selection to roasting it.”
While many of the shops spoken to did not really see Starbucks or national chains as a major threat due to the different niches of a national grab-and-go chain compared to a local coffee house, many did acknowledge the power of advertising and reputation Starbucks boasts. Townsend said the Coffee Gallery makes coffee better than Starbucks, but the Coffee Gallery just cannot spend tons of money to make a commercial about its products.
Hickmon noted how Starbucks basically owns convenience in coffee, but how there are many other niches to be filled.
“I wouldn’t call them a threat because they can’t compete with what we do as far as our relationships with customers,” Townsend said. “But, of course, whenever I drive by and see a big line around Starbucks, it makes me wonder why are they not trying us out.”
Warren said people sometimes just do not realize what a local coffee shop has to offer. Starbucks boasts a worldwide reputation built over years and years, which makes people build habits of visiting chains.
“They don’t really try anything new,” Warren said. “But once people try our coffee and come in and catch our vibe here, they’re hooked.”
While both local and national coffee shops have their advantages and disadvantages, Nobles said it’s all about the love when it comes to the local shop.
“I think with just like food and anything else that comes down to somebody hand making things with recipes and stuff like that, it comes down to love,” Nobles said. “You put a little love in it and you can taste all the difference.”