Photos By Sarah Gilliam
M More than half of the adult U.S. population drinks multiple cups of coffee on a daily basis, according to Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. With annual sales exceeding $40 billion (according to a 2010 study), it is easy to understand why so many coffee companies are staking their claims and finding success in the market.
But a coffee shop isn’t just a coffee shop anymore. As consumers have become more cognizant of the origins of products, the ways in which they are produced and how hands-on retailers are with preparation, it’s equally easy to understand why many coffee companies can no longer subscribe to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” model.
Across Middle Tennessee there is a rapidly emerging handcrafted coffee business where multiple companies are working to secure a niche in the community. In recent years it has become essential for coffee shops to provide their own coffee—and not just a bag of beans with their name on the label. No, it has become important to thoughtfully select the right beans from the right places and roast them to perfection in house.
Across the mid-state, several roasting companies have broken onto the scene with their own brands that make serious fans out of casual coffee drinkers. While many of them share a common goal, they each approach the business from a different experience and with different ideas, making today the best time in history to be a coffee lover in Middle Tennessee.
The Nashville roasting pioneers over at Bongo Java have been at it since 1996. Owner Bob Bernstein got into the business in 1993 and began a roasting operation three years later (around the same time the Nun Bun famously made the news) as the business expanded. After founding a cooperative of coffee buyers with four other roasters, Bongo Java started roasting beans and truly developing its own unique brand.
“Bob [Bernstein], the owner, was kind of focused on the trade aspect of the business,” Tom Valentine, Bongo Java’s head roaster and green buyer, said. “He wasn’t really all that interested in coffee at the outset. He was more interested in doing something that was fair—something that had a bit of ethical responsibility to it. The initial idea was that we would start importing coffee from people with the intention of establishing long-term relationships and buying organic products and improving the lives of people we were buying from, as well as trying to improve the lives of the company’s employees and providing a really good product.
“For us it’s much more than just a commodity. It wasn’t just that we found this thing that we can sell. We found a community to be a part of where we can improve the health of this community. So, we are very particular about who we buy from and we have organic standards and trade standards. We are really involved with all the growers.”
The cooperative with which Bongo Java is associated is now a collection of 24 companies that are able to share orders and get the green coffee beans they need for their individual brands from all over the world.
They also pool their manpower and keep in touch with the growers to make sure the conditions where the coffee is sourced from are acceptable and ethical.
So, a lot of work has taken place before the coffee makes it to the roasting facility. Once it’s there—up to 10,000 pounds per week of it—the process goes quickly. Bongo Java puts the beans into their refurbished 1957 Probat roaster, cranks it up to about 450 degrees and a few minutes later there are roasted beans ready to be packaged and sent off to be enjoyed in a retail shop or in someone’s home.
Approximately 40 miles south, in the quiet town square in Columbia, Tennessee, a much newer operation has taken off, giving the people of Maury County a first-rate local place to get fresh-roasted coffee, all because a couple of guys decided to take a risk.
Muletown Roasted Coffee came to Columbia via serendipity. Co-owner Chris Weninegar says a drive through Columbia en route to Nashville from his home in Birmingham started the whole process. He passed through the square unintentionally and decided that it seemed like the perfect spot to pursue his dream.
“I called my wife and I told her, ‘you’re going to think I’m kidding, but I’m in this town called Columbia, Tennessee,’” said Weninegar. “I said, ‘it’s where my buddy Matt lives, whom you know, and it’s a cool little town with a downtown square that literally has nothing on it, but it’d be a great place to start a coffee shop.’”
Matt Johnson, a close friend and fellow songwriter, ended up being the other owner of Muletown.
“She hated Birmingham enough to give it a shot,” Weninegar said of his wife with a grin. “Six months later we were here.”
Weninegar’s background consisted of two prominent elements: music and coffee.
“I toured a lot,” he said. “So, coffee shops would let me take off for three months at a time to go on tour and then come back to my job.”
After giving up music as his primary job, Weninegar went back to school at the University of North Alabama to work on a degree in 2006 and found work in a local coffee shop called Rivertown in Florence. That’s where he met Matt. Weninegar said that while working in the shop and thinking about one day starting a coffee roasting business, he asked the owner of Rivertown if he would buy his product if he ever got it off the ground. The owner’s response was yes…if it’s good.
As it turns out, Rivertown Coffee was Muletown’s first customer—the first of many.
Unlike Bongo Java, a coffee shop that eventually got into roasting its own beans, Muletown is a coffee shop that was never supposed to happen. Chris just wanted to be a roaster. Roasting, he says, was the whole concept.
After abruptly quitting a job working with a large coffee company in a quality control lab, Weninegar made the jump to Columbia and got a job with Charter Cable to sustain him until he got the business up and running. And then fate stepped in again: On his first day out of training, he met a man with some interesting equipment in his garage. It was a small, commercial-grade coffee roaster.
“We struck up a conversation and I asked him if he would sell his equipment and he said no. My next question was, ‘well then, can I just use it?’”
Chris worked out an arrangement with the man and Muletown got started with a borrowed roaster and espresso machine and the help of a $7000 loan from his father-in-law.
The concept was a roasting operation in the space on the square, and a drip coffee maker in the front where people could have a cup for free if they wanted to watch the coffee roasting. That might have been enough to keep it going. Rivertown was on board as a customer, and then came Puckett’s Grocery and many others. Even Duck Commander owner Willie Robertson has expressed interest in stocking his new Monroe, Louisiana, coffee shop with Muletown Coffee.
But the locals demanded more. They wanted a shop where they could come in and have a cup of their own locally roasted coffee and talk and congregate—and despite it not being in the master plan originally, it’s working out very well. Muletown is expanding to a second shop in Columbia on Hampshire Pike in December and has purchased a much larger roaster than the original borrowed model, which still is in use inside the store on the public square.
On 12th Avenue South, Frothy Monkey has been a popular place for drinking coffee since 2004. They have been given high marks as one of the city’s best coffee shops year after year, and after expanding to four locations in recent years, they recently decided to begin locally roasting their own beans, as well.
Kaldi’s Coffee in St. Louis, Missouri, partnered with Frothy Monkey to open their new roasting facility just south of downtown’s new Music City Center. The facility will be a full service wholesaler for roasted coffee, making Frothy Monkey’s roasted coffee available not only in the area’s four coffee shops, but in grocery stores and other retailers in the Nashville area.
In Tullahoma, Brenda Lavieri started a company called Fuel So Good in 2012 as a way to pursue her own interests as a coffee lover, as well as provide a family workplace for herself, her husband and their grown children.
Fuel So Good is a bakery and coffee shop where all the goods are produced in house. The pastries are made by hand from all organic ingredients and the coffee they roast is sourced from organic coffee farms with certified fair trade standards. It’s what sets them apart from any other coffee producers in their area. They also do not blend coffee beans at Fuel So Good. They carved out a specific niche for coffee drinkers looking for fair trade, organic, single-origin coffees.