Coffee: For the Community, By the Community

Google+ Pinterest LinkedIn Tumblr +

By Audrey Harman, Contributing Writer

Matthew Brower, owner of Grounds Central Station

Photo by Chris Lehto

When the days grow shorter and chillier, what can get you out of the house and has options for everyone? One answer: Your local community-based coffee shop.

In a world where big-name coffee chains can be found at every shopping plaza and street corner, you might think that a love of coffee is something we all have in common. Clearly, it is big business.

Still, for us java fans, there’s nothing like discovering a little locally owned coffee shop that feels like home. I’m not knocking the big- name brands. Something can be said for the global presence that lends consistency wherever you go, but communities need a place to go that’s uniquely their own.

Why Local?
The benefits of independently owned coffeehouses are plentiful. Primarily, the owners are members of the community and personally invested in its success. Additionally, the money spent at these shops is much more likely to flow back into the neighborhood, boosting the local economy.

A handful of mom-and-pop java joints are tucked into neighborhoods throughout greater Prince William, such as Grounds Central Station in Manassas and Deja Brew Coffee House in Haymarket. One of the area’s originals, The Coffee House of Occoquan, located in Historic Occoquan, will soon close its doors after a 20-year run. The owner is retiring.

Shops such as these exist as a hub for the community. Like in many small businesses, employees learn your name and what you’re about. They come to know the coffee you order most often and may make your favorite beverage as you walk in. (Mine is a medium “triple shot,” including toffee, almond milk and latte.)

Check out more here about these local businesses that have become staples in Prince William.

Grounds Central Station: A Cup of Cozy
Grounds Central Station, located at 9360 Main Street in Old Town Manassas, was called “Simply Sweet on Main” when it opened more than three years ago. Owners Matthew and Jennifer Brower initially planned the shop to be a bakery that also served coffee, Brower said.

However, plans changed when “we didn’t sell as many pastries as originally planned. Coffee is what sold,” he said. So last year the couple held a contest that allowed the community to choose a new name that suited the shop as a coffeehouse.

The shop owners selected six entries from among the hundreds submitted by patrons, according to an article in the Manassas Patch, which began polling readers for the winning name in August 2012. Patron Kathleen Mosimann’s suggestion was the winner. The Browers presented her with a gift card to the coffee shop, and the shop became “Grounds Central Station” earlier this year.

Brower said he and his wife chose to open a bakery and coffee shop because he thought that type of business would not generate a lot of overhead. He also likes trying new things, he said. “Coffee was new to me,” he stated. He did have some experience, however. “I worked in restaurants, and I like the hospitality industry,” said Brower.

The couple selected Manassas for their shop’s location “because there was no coffee shop in the area, there was foot traffic, it was in a charming old town and the building was already a coffee shop six months before we came in and didn’t need a lot of work,” Brower said.

As soon as they purchased the shop, the Browers, who lived in Florida at the time, moved to Prince William, where they relocated so Jennifer could attend school in the area.

The shop’s first year and a half was difficult, said Brower, explaining that it was challenging at first to gain local residents’ trust and build a customer base. Ironically, many appeared skeptical about whether the shop would be successful and, therefore, didn’t frequent it, he said. Luckily, any skeptics tried the coffee, came back and became regulars.

Brower said one benefit of owning a small, community-based business is that customers know him by name, and he can personally listen and respond to their suggestions, changing menu fare to fit their tastes. Consequently, “the business has expanded based on what the customers want,” he said. “I taught myself and learned from what the guests were telling me I was doing wrong.”

The Browers promote the shop as a relaxing environment where people can read and gather. The Prince William writers’ club Write by the Rails frequently meets there.

Grounds Central Station also hosts readings by local authors and performances by area artists and musicians. “We’re very busy, so planning events isn’t easy for us,” Brower said. “But we are willing to host events people would like to organize. If they approach us, we are happy to host their event.”

Brower said “a little of everyone” comes into the coffeehouse. In the mornings, the shop gets a lot of business meetings. Lunchtime brings area workers in for coffee and food, and families come in the evenings, he explained.

“We don’t get a lot of morning commuter traffic,” he added. “No one wants to be stuck on this side of the railroad tracks [during rush hour].”

Fall is the busiest season for Grounds Central Station, he said. People don’t like to leave their houses as much in the winter, and hot beverages are not popular in summer, Brower explained.

Recently, he added smoothies, ice cream and bubble tea to the offerings in the hopes of drawing more business during the warmer months. Brower said selling them kept business steadier this summer.

The most popular drink on the menu: “Anything with chocolate,” he laughed.

Other changes planned for the coffeehouse include outdoor seating (newly approved by the City of Manassas) and a large, overhanging sign. Visit www.groundscentralstation.com for updates, events and new menu items.

Deja Brew Coffee House: Community-Conscious Grounds
Tom and Lisa Nichols opened Deja Brew Coffee House in Haymarket three and a half years ago as a shop with a community-conscious vibe. “Coffeehouses are community places.Revolutions started out of coffee shops,” said Tom. While discussions at Deja Brew are more peaceful, Tom said that the shop acts as a community hub, or common grounds, with something for everyone.

To create a community-oriented atmosphere, the Nichols have included in Deja Brew a variety of seating areas, a bring-your-own-mug shelf for regular visitors, a book exchange and a collection of musical instruments. Tom, who was a sound engineer in the music industry before opening Deja Brew, always wanted to manage a coffee shop that features local music as well as art, he said.

Showcasing the work of area artists, Deja Brew also hosts poetry readings, an open mic night, an acoustic club, jazz and even a “Twister” game night, Tom said. For young customers, there is story time on Tuesdays at 10 a.m. and children’s music Thursdays at 11 a.m.

Additionally, customers are encouraged to play the guitars and other instruments lining the walls. “I want Deja Brew to be inspirational to kids and people in music and arts. We’re not in it for the money,” said Tom.

The Nichols modeled Deja Brew after the coffeehouses Tom visited in Europe during his earlier career, he said. In Europe, coffee shops are privately owned, neighborhood businesses, Tom said. “I love coffee,” he said. “I’m a coffee fanatic, and I love the history behind coffeehouses.”

Opening Deja Brew initially in Gainesville, the Nichols eventually moved the shop closer to their home in Haymarket and near where their son, Max, was starting high school. Tom ensured that the coffeehouse, located at 5311 Merchants View Square, looked less corporate and more like a place where the community can come together, he said.

The Nichols’ sense of community consciousness extends to events usually reserved for adults, such as the shop’s open mic nights.

Tom said he keeps the events, which mingle age groups, kid- friendly and encourages older children to act as role models for the younger ones. He said his most loyal customers are families. “Coffee is a social thing, a bar alternative,” he said.

Tom emphasized that he wants Deja Brew to be a vehicle for enhancing Prince William. To that end, the Nichols started the Deja Brew Foundation, which raises money for children with health problems, Tom said. Partnering with local theater groups, the foundation raised $9,000 for a child with cerebral palsy and sold artwork by a woman with similar health problems to give her greater financial independence, he stated.

As independent owners of Deja Brew, the Nichols have the flexibility to make any changes they wish to their business, unlike chain operations, Tom said. “We’re not boxed in,” he explained. “You couldn’t host a Twister night or have a ’70s disco night in a chain.”

Also, as the owner of a small business, he can make changes more quickly than owners of large businesses may be able to and respond sooner to what the community needs, he said.

One need he’s addressing is the desire for fresh, unprocessed food. All of the shop’s food are made from scratch and in-house, and the coffee is served within 10 days of roasting. The business is increasing its organic offerings, and Tom said that he eventually wants to purchase products from local farmers.

The coffeehouse’s menu alters slightly with the seasons. In addition to coffee and tea, Deja Brew serves wine, beer, cider and even sake and mead.

Tom said that rather than experiencing a downturn following sequestration, business has been getting better because people are looking for a place that offers entertainment and escape. “I thought people would cut out coffee,” he said. “But they haven’t.”

For a list of upcoming events at Deja Brew, visit www.dejabrewcoffeehouse.com, which also features live streaming of events at the shop. Tom said that people from as far away as Australia have tuned in.

The Coffee House of Occoquan: Good to the Last Drop
When Linda Caldwell opened The Coffee House of Occoquan 20 years ago, coffeehouses were a novelty in this area, she said. “There was nothing like it in town when I opened,” said Caldwell, who combined the coffeehouse with a gift shop. Caldwell said she hosted live musical events to draw people into her coffee shop, which is housed in a historic 19th-century building.

Now, after two decades of business, Caldwell has decided to retire. She reminisced about people she has met and who rooted her to the town.

She said her goal for her business was as a community meeting place where anybody can come and sit, but not have to spend a lot of money. “I was in this for the enjoyment, not the money, and I made a lot of friends over the years,” said Caldwell. She said that independently owned coffee shops such as hers attract people to sit and talk, instead of just grabbing coffee to go, and that patrons form a community where everybody knows each other.

“It’s a place where you can enjoy the ‘old-fashioned’ pluses, while the whole world is on roller skates,” laughed Caldwell. “I wanted to bring warmth. I know a lot of first names. If someone’s sick, we all help out however we can. Coffeehouses bring that small- town warmth of people caring about each other.”

The shop is undergoing renovations to get ready for sale, she said. However, Caldwell added that she should still be around for customers to drop into The Coffee House of Occoquan— but only for a little while longer. “I’m ready to relax and not have to work the long hours required of a coffeehouse,” said Caldwell. “The business has seen its ups and downs, but I’m ready to retire.”

She shared her well-wishes for the newer independently owned coffee shops in Prince William and encouraged people to check them out. “Go in and visit. Have a cup of coffee,” said Caldwell.

So the next time you’re feeling under-caffeinated, or if you just want a place to meet with your book club, take a look at locally owned coffee shops nearby. You may find that these businesses, like the shops featured here, offer a way to stay connected to your community.

[divider]

Audrey Harman has a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and creative writing from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va. She is pursuing a master’s degree in publications design at the University of Baltimore and lives in Woodbridge with her family.

Share.

Leave A Reply