By David Nilsen
When I was a teenager in Greenville in the late 1990s, there weren’t many options for getting a cup of really good coffee. Fortunately, I didn’t know good coffee from grocery store canister blends at the time. I spent my afternoons writing bad poetry and drinking bad coffee, erroneously convinced both were of surpassing quality. My eyes began to open in 2002 when a new coffee shop opened on Broadway. Broadway Joe’s, owned by Jim and Trish Hart, had hip decor, stayed open late, played good music, and, most importantly of all, served better coffee than the caffeine hounds of our town were used to. The Harts eventually sold the business, but they had laid the groundwork for a better kind of coffee culture in Greenville. On October 1, 2011, Rob and Amber Garrett took that torch and opened The Coffee Pot, a coffee shop that has become a mainstay of downtown life.
“I think it’s something that both of us wanted to do for a very long time,” said Rob when we sat down to talk in his shop’s sun-dappled cafe in early August. Amber elaborated, “In high school, we weren’t partiers. We were the people who wanted to get together with our friends and drink a lot of coffee–pots at a time–and just talk. We would have deep conversations, conversations that would last all night long, so we needed a lot of coffee. We knew that we wanted to create that type of environment in this community.”
“It’s almost as much about the environment as it is what’s in the cup,” added Rob, reflecting on the culture of conversation they’ve cultivated in the shop’s first five years. When they dreamed up the idea for The Coffee Pot, the couple wanted to create a place where people could come together over ideas. Rob pointed out how many great works of literature and music and how many important social and political moments throughout history have had their genesis over cups of coffee between friends. The Garretts envisioned an environment in downtown Greenville in which that kind of stimulating creative conversation could grow.
Creating a particular social environment is about more than intention, of course, and the Garretts were fortunate to find the perfect space available downtown to suit their vision. The Coffee Pot found a home in the ground floor storefront of The Palace, a gorgeous historic building originally built in the late 1800s. For decades, The Palace held a department store by the same name, and continued to host various clothing stores until the building was vacated in the late 1990s, in need of renovation. Fortunately, several investors initiated a project to restore the building to its original splendor and rent spaces on the first two floors to businesses. Broadway Joe’s was the first coffee shop to open in The Palace’s premier corner storefront, and was followed for a time by Sweet 101, a cafe known for their excellent baked goods, before The Coffee Pot opened. The Garretts aren’t shy in their praise for what Jim and Trish started with that first coffee shop.
“I think the path Broadway Joe’s created was quite impressive. If it weren’t for them, we might have questioned the community’s ability to support a coffee shop,” said Amber.
The environment Rob and Amber and their staff have created is a big part of what has made The Coffee Pot such a beloved institution in downtown Greenville, but a modern coffee shop’s first priority always has to be its coffee. What’s in the cup matters. “Coffee culture was moving at a very fast pace for a while about 5 to 10 years ago, and Greenville was not keeping up. It was getting left in the dust,” lamented Rob while explaining his desire to see Greenville’s level of coffee appreciation improve. He cared too much to see his home town fall behind the nation’s movement toward better understanding and appreciation of good coffee, so the pair made a commitment from the beginning to provide Greenville with a quality of coffee the town wasn’t used to. “Part of our goal was to elevate the coffee culture in this town.”
That commitment paid off shortly after they opened when a fortuitous meeting with an out-of-town visitor impressed by the quality of Rob’s coffee led to one of the shop’s most important working partnerships. Less than a year after the shop opened, they invited a group of musicians and poets up from Cincinnati to perform on a Friday night. One of the men who traveled with the group was into coffee and wanted to open his own shop (he now operates two such shops in Cincinnati). “He was amazed with what he found when he came up to this rural, farming community two hours outside of Cincinnati,” Rob explained. “We had a very long conversation about coffee. About a week later, I got a phone call from Deeper Roots Coffee out of Cincinnati. Apparently the guy had been so impressed with what we were doing, he had gone and told other coffee people in Cincinnati. Deeper Roots in turn reached out to us and wanted to come see what we were doing. We started talking and decided we wanted to work together.”
When I spoke with Ryan Doan, head of customer relations for Deeper Roots, about The Coffee Pot, he said it’s clear the Garretts are doing everything in their power to make Greenville a great place to live and visit. “Coffee businesses are truly a labor of love, and we feel privileged to know Rob and Amber and be able to work together to bring great coffee to Greenville.”
Early on, The Coffee Pot was using beans roasted by Chicago’s well-respected roaster Metropolis, where Rob originally did his barista training when he lived in the city in his twenties. “We had a good run with Metropolis, but they were so far away. I’ve talked to other coffee roasters far away from here, and I could tell right off the bat [those roasters] just didn’t get this area of the Midwest. They just didn’t understand it. Deeper Roots did. They were operating on a level on par with anyone across the country.” The Coffee Pot has been pouring coffee from the Cincinnati roasters ever since, but also works with Boston Stoker, a Dayton-based roaster that was founded by folks originally from Darke County. “One of the great things about Stoker is they’re really close, so we’ve had a really great working relationship with them over the last few years. They care a great deal about what they’re doing.”
That care extends beyond just ensuring the quality of the coffee beans they sell. The company also partners with a non-profit based in Xenia called Heart to Honduras that provides medical care, dental care, farming assistance, and other aid to low income areas of the Central American country. Boston Stoker sells a coffee from one of the farms in Honduras, and for every pound of that coffee they sell, they donate a certain amount back to Heart to Honduras. In 2014, Rob and Amber were invited to travel to Honduras with a team from the two organizations.
“Boston Stoker reached out to us and offered to pay for me to go to Honduras with them. We saw the opportunity for Amber to go as well, so we paid for Amber and both went to Honduras. We spent the first part of the trip doing humanitarian work, building houses and meeting people and being exposed to their culture. And then in the second half of the trip we visited the coffee farms,” said Rob.
“We were meeting the farmers in the co-op,” Amber explained. “And the farmers were being treated fairly. They were receiving the correct compensation for their product.”
Rob explained that The Coffee Pot was able to sell that coffee for a period of time. “We met the farmer who grew the coffee we were selling. His name was Jose Isidro. We went all the way to Honduras and met him, and shook hands with this man. I’m certain you would have to drive a long way from here to find a coffee shop who had met the farmer who was growing their coffee halfway around the world. That’s part of what is so important about what coffee culture has become over the last 15 years. Transparency has been a big word. It’s important now to know where your coffee is from, who’s growing it, what are they using to grow it, how the workers are being treated. We walked the mountain where this coffee was being grown. That gives you a lot of transparency.”
While Rob and Amber are proud of the growth they’ve seen in the community’s appreciation of quality coffee, they are careful to clarify they just want people to enjoy their coffee however they like it. “It’s funny how many times we’ll go to someone’s house and they think we won’t like their coffee,” Amber joked. “Look, I grew up drinking this kind of coffee, so there’s a charm to having it sometimes.”
“It really comes down to what you like,” Rob added. “What kind of coffee do you like? It’s still a flavored coffee town, but we’ve made headway. The number of people coming in and requesting single origin coffees by origin–Tanzania, Guatemala, Papua New Guinea–you can see the impact.”
One of the things that has always impressed me about Rob and Amber, and one of the characteristics of the shop that has allowed for people to learn more about coffee without feeling intimidated, is this intentional lack of snobbery when it comes to their favorite drink. Rob knows more about coffee than most people you’ll ever meet, but you might have to talk to him for a while before you discover that. He doesn’t need to announce his knowledge to you; he makes great coffee, and trusts that coffee to speak for itself. This lack of pretense from the pair might have to do with their own inauspicious beginnings in coffee appreciation.
“My aunt used to come over on Saturday mornings and bring donuts,” Amber explained. “We lived out in the country. My mom and her sister would have coffee and donuts and as a little girl I would sit there and sneak a cup of coffee. It wasn’t very good. It was just cheap coffee. But there was a charm to it.” Similarly, Rob remembers getting started as a teenager drinking the same bad store-bought coffee as the rest of us. “I remember the first time I had an espresso, for sure. A real coffee, made by an actual barista. I was 22.” Less than ten years later, the couple had the knowledge and passion to open their own coffee shop.
“We drank coffee so casually for such a long time, but coffee might possibly be the most complex drink on the planet.” That’s a bold statement, but it’s one Rob defends convincingly. As he explains the factors that go into the flavors in a cup of coffee–the bean’s origin and growing conditions, the way it’s ground, the specific means by which it’s brewed, the temperature of the water, and others–you begin to understand the dizzying array of variables that can be played with to create a simple cup of Joe.
It’s a complexity Rob hopes to help people grasp a little better when he leads a coffee tasting class at Greenville Public Library in the coming months (details coming soon). “The idea would be to take one coffee and brew it a couple different ways, and then take a coffee from a different region and brew it a couple different ways,” He explained. “That way, not only can they tell there’s a difference between a coffee from Kenya and a coffee from Guatemala, but when you take that coffee from Guatemala and you make an espresso or a pour-over or a French press, each of those are different. And even within those, you can grind it finer or coarser, you can adjust the temperature…it’s almost endless, how you can control all the parameters of brewing coffee.”
The day after we sat down to discuss the shop’s first five years, Rob gave me a crash course in espresso drinks to try to give me a picture of some of the complexity–and simplicity–of making great coffee. He walked me through the basic battery of demonstrations he gives all his new employees, and we sampled each drink together. “All espresso drinks are about ratios and balance of flavors. People think there are 93 different kinds of espresso drinks, and though there have been little variations over the years, there are really fewer than 10. Actually, there are about 5 or 6 espresso-based drinks that Americans consume on a daily basis,” Rob clarified.
We started out with a classic espresso, a strong, pressure-brewed coffee that yields a profound array of flavors. Rob explained coffee professionals are beginning to see more experimentation in pulling espressos. For a long time, espressos were always a blend, and they were always a dark roast, because people had a certain expectation for how espresso should taste. Now, we’re starting to see more single origin espresso beans, just as we do with drip coffees, and the use of lighter roasts. From espresso, we moved on to macchiato, which is espresso with a small amount of steamed milk (“macchiato” literally means “stained” or “marked” in Italian, indicating the minor role of the milk in this balance). Finally, after a discussion of Americanos and latte styles, we moved on to cappuccino, Rob’s favorite drink on the espresso continuum.
“The most misunderstood coffee beverage on the planet is cappuccino,” Rob explained as he prepared us each a cup. “Believe it or not, you cannot go into a gas station and get a proper cappuccino. I know that’s unbelievable,” he said with a wry smile. “It is a 6 to 8 ounce drink, never any larger, ever. I don’t care what Starbucks’ menu says. When you start getting larger in size, it becomes a latte. It’s a ratio of about one third espresso, one third steamed milk, and one third foam. It’s a fairly strong drink, coffee-wise. Coffee should be the dominant flavor. Cappuccino should taste like a creamy espresso-like drink, not flavored hot chocolate. They do not have flavors added. Ever.”
He poured our cups, and when I took a sip, I understood his love for true cappuccino. It tasted like gentle fall sunlight in liquid form. I’ve enjoyed proper cappuccinos for a long time, but a fuller understanding of this oft-corrupted drink gives me a better appreciation for The Coffee Pot’s commitment to quality.
There was a time, of course, when Rob wouldn’t have had the time for this kind of leisurely demonstration for a curious writer. I asked the Garretts what the first days and weeks and months were like when they opened the shop, and they both laughed before answering.
“Chaos,” offered Amber.
“I have no idea. I don’t remember,” said Rob. “I honestly remember very little of the first six months. I remember bits and pieces, but there’s no clear narrative.” For the first six months straight, Rob worked open to close, seven days a week. “I remember after six months, I started taking one evening off. It was weird. And then a day off. It took a while. Autopilot takes over. You don’t really think about it. Adrenaline is going. You’re tired, but you have to do it, so you do it.”
“It was very important for Rob to be the first person our customers met,” Amber explained. “We were really aware of that. We wanted to build relationships with our customers from the very beginning, so people knew him and what he was like and what his personality is. In a small town, repeat customers are your bread and butter. If we didn’t have repeat customers, we wouldn’t exist. Building those relationships early was important.”
When the couple talk about the first year after they opened, the exhaustion of the memory is clear in their voices. They were constantly both stressed and excited, nervous and energetic. Amber talked about how she would bring their son (then in elementary and now starting high school) to the shop in the evenings just so he and Rob could spend a little time together. The family ate more carry-out dinners from D’Alessios, the small Italian restaurant behind The Coffee Pot in The Palace building, than they can remember.
While those first twelve months were tiring and stressful, they held good memories as well. One of Amber’s favorites was the shop’s one year anniversary in October 2012. “We had a poster and our customers signed it. Some of the words they shared with us were a boost of confidence that what we set out to do, we were doing. When you’re in it every day, and it stresses you out and you’re nervous, some days you don’t want to do it anymore because you’re just tired. To have a day like that where everybody said we’re behind you, we believe in what you’re doing, was pretty amazing. After a year of really hard work, being able to see the community come in and celebrate with us was awesome.”
And now the business is nearing another big anniversary: five years. When the Garretts look back on their first half a decade in business, they both express how big of a role their employees have played in their success. “We’ve been very fortunate to have some of the most amazing staff members who have really become a part of our family. We have very little turnover, and we have staff members who care, not only about good coffee, but about our customers and the community. They’re a big part of our lives every day.” The talented barista staff have been a huge credit to The Coffee Pot over the years, but Rob and Amber also both expressed how fortunate it was that they were able to hire baker Carol Haworth–co-owner of Sweet 101, the cafe that preceded The Coffee Pot in its corner location–to bake the shop’s delicious desserts. “We knew from the beginning if we could get Carol to come in and bake for us, we would be on track.”
Rob and Amber see their shop’s five year anniversary as an opportunity to recommit to the vision they laid out in 2011. “I’m really excited about this milestone,” Amber reflected. “I know it’s just another day, but to me it represents a lot more.”
“It’s like you’re the first runner in a relay race,” Rob explained, “and you’re about to hand off that baton, but then you realize you’re actually the whole team, so you’ve passed the baton to yourself, and you have to recommit. We’re not done here.” Rob and Amber had goals for The Coffee Pot five years ago, and they’re still seeing those through. “We wanted to dig into the soil here,” Rob elaborated. “Greenville has a lot of mainstays–Bear’s Mill, Maid-Rite, Montage, some others–we wanted to be one of those places. Not a place where people come to town to go to another business and then maybe stop off at our place. We wanted to be one of those places where people say, We’re going to go to Greenville to go to The Coffee Pot.”
The Coffee Pot does indeed feel like a Greenville fixture now, but it started with the smallest of ideas. Early in the summer of 2011, Rob and Amber were with friends in downtown Greenville on a Friday night, watching Little Rascals on a large outdoor screen during a Main Street Greenville Flicks on Fifth event, and they realized how cool the idea for the event was. Someone had had the idea, and then had decided to make it happen. It dawned on Amber that those ideas didn’t just have to happen to other people. “I remember thinking, It’s our turn. It’s our turn to make this stuff happen now. Growing up here, you always wondered why there wasn’t anything to do. Somebody has to make that stuff happen. We realized it was our turn. Within six months, we opened this place.”
Rob and Amber Garrett had a vision for a space where friends could gather around good cups of coffee and share ideas and laugh and have long conversations. They didn’t want to wait for someone else to create that space, so they took a risk (and some deep breaths) and opened The Coffee Pot. I, for one, am grateful.
It’s been five years now. Raise a cup of your favorite coffee to many more.