Coffee culture

New coffee houses in Blount County are perking along and brewing up a business bonanza

Photo with no caption
By Lance Coleman
Senior reporter
Blount Today

Getting a cup of specialty coffee in Blount County is easier now than ever before. Nine new coffee houses or businesses have opened in the past 18 months. Six of those are locally owned.

Brew Brothers, Bookmark Café, Capitol Coffee, The Coffee House, Grounded Coffee and More, Highland Grounds, Panera Bread and two locations of Starbucks have opened since 2005.

Why the desire for $3 lattes and specialty drinks, some of which don’t even have coffee in them? From what the managers of several area establishments say, this boom in coffee houses is has been percolating for quite a while in other parts of the country and is now hitting Blount County.

Blount Countians are experiencing the coffee culture, and it’s as much about enjoying a relaxing coffee house atmosphere as it is about tasting different and higher quality coffee.

"My person belief is since alcohol is so frowned upon as a society, coffee houses have become the neighborhood pubs," The Coffee House owner Jo Anne Funk said.

"I think coffee shops in general meet different needs for different people," Grounded Coffee and More owner Lisa Williams said. "It’s worth spending the money for a really good cup of coffee if you’re in a hurry and out the door and on the way home and need something to pick you up."

"I think people want a place where they can sit around and be comfortable, enjoy good coffee and conversation and feel at home and listen to music," said Atlanta Bread Co. general manager Laura Geisler. "I think the music has a lot to do with it. It’s very soothing and relaxing. The music sets the mood."

Capitol Coffee owner Heath Claiborne attributes the surge in coffee houses and shops to timing. "There had to be a lot of people thinking we needed a coffee shop. I never looked at other coffee shops as competition. I have my own thing going here," he said.

"We provide an environment that’s relaxing," Panera Bread general manager Tom Leader said. "It’s a bit of an oasis."

Sheila Sizemore said the draw for Brews Brothers is the relaxing, warm and friendly environment. "If you want to stay for a while, that’s fine, or if you want to get it and go, you feel a warm, friendly environment," she said.

Borshoff Johnson Matthews Public Relations and Market Communications provide public relations services for Starbucks. Account Manager Shannon Phillips said customers want a third place after work and home to relax.

"The Starbucks experience offers this type of comfort to its customers - a place for people to connect over coffee."

Blount County can now boast 14 -- if you count Starbucks as two -- places where customers can experience the coffee house atmosphere. For those of you trying to figure out just where those 14 are, what follows is a snapshot of each one
we found in Blount County.

John Clark
Vienna Coffee Company
106 Everett Ave., Maryville
865-681-0517

John Clark is an engineer who moved here from California and brought his love of coffee with him. It was that desire to get a good cup of coffee that turned a hobby into a new career. Many of the coffee houses and coffee-related businesses that have opened recently use Vienna coffee.

"That’s why I entered the business. When I came from California there was none of this," he said of coffee houses. "Back in California, there was a coffee shop on every corner. They all had their niche. East Tennessee was 10, perhaps 20 years behind the Bay area in coffee culture," he said.

Clark moved here in 1996, started roasting coffee beans for friends and family as a hobby in 1997. In 2000, he went in with his brother and bought the Vienna Coffee House in a community near Miami, which they have now sold, but kept the Vienna name. In the same year, he bought a roaster from a Calgary coffee house, broke it down in his garage and reassembled and cleaned it. Then he started selling the coffee beans to friends and his wife’s co-workers.

In mid-2001, he formed the Vienna Coffee company in Maryville as a fallback as he saw that his company was going through a crisis. When they told him a year later he was being transferred, Clark left the corporate world and went out on his own full time.

"They said, ‘Your job is in Philadelphia, and I said, ‘No, it’s not,’ " Clark said. "July 31, 2002, was my last day with a paycheck. I’ve been growing the business since then."

Much of his business has been with Blount County coffee shops. Clark said it’s extremely gratifying for his customers to have success because coffee houses want the same thing he wants, a quality product.

"Even though I don’t have a coffee house, I vicariously do because all my customers have coffee houses. They have to have a good product to keep people coming back," he said.

Clark said having the bigger corporate coffee establishments come to Blount County will help all coffee houses because more people will learn to appreciate good coffee. "Education, it’s all about teaching people about good coffee, which is where Starbucks comes in. They will help educate people about what good coffee is," he said.

As Starbuck’s business improves, so will everyone else’s.

"All ships rise with the tide," he said.

Atlanta Bread Co.
133 Associates Blvd., Alcoa
Hours: Mondays - Thursdays 6 a.m. - 8:30 p.m.; Fridays 6 a.m. - 9 p.m. Saturdays 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sundays 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
865-981-4567

Atlanta Bread Co., general manager Laura Geisler said the store in Springbrook Plaza has been open for six years. She said coffee houses are popular because coffee is a legal addiction.

"We’re selling a legally addictive stimulant," she said with a laugh. "That’s a big part of our business. People come here for the coffee. I think they like the atmosphere. They can sit around. It’s nice, big and open, and we have free Internet service."

As soon as wireless Internet was available, Geisler said ABC has had it. "We’ve had it a couple of years," she said. "It’s big. There are people who come here just for the Internet."

Weather makes a huge difference in how much coffee the store sells. "In the summer we don’t sell as much coffee. We sell more of the frozen drinks. We sell some of our ice coffee drinks (in the winter) but not as much as in the summer." Geisler
said. "In the winter, it’s hot drinks all the way. The colder it gets, the busier we are."

The Bard Coffee House
1739 West Broadway Ave., Maryville
Hours: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday - Friday; 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday; closed Sunday
865-379-0508

The Bard Coffee House was the first coffee house in Blount County. It opened Jan. 26, 2000, said The Bard co-owner Paul Muscat.

Muscat’s in-laws actually started the coffee house, and it was his brother-in-law Ryan who named it.

"He was an English lit major and was about to graduate and was into the literature things. Some of our original drinks are still on the board. They have classic book names like Scarlett Letter and Treasure Island," he said.

Muscat is from Malta, an island in the Mediterranean Sea.

"When I came in they had the idea and had started putting stuff together. They just always loved coffee and liked the environment they found in other places in Europe where there was this homey atmosphere, and they wanted to create something similar," he said.

The Bard offers an extensive menu of 50 espresso drinks. "That keeps us busy," he said.

Muscat said that, coming from Europe, he had a different perspective on coffee house culture.

"Over there, it’s kind of like people go there to take a break from work or to go and relax," he said.

For many here though, coffee houses have become a necessity.

"For a lot of them, it’s a way of life. It’s kind of like a necessity rather than a means of relaxation. The idea seems to be changing," he said.

Muscat said the best selling drink they have is the Dublander. It’s a large latte with two shots of espresso and English toffee and Irish cream. His favorite is the B-52, which is the same as a Dublander except instead of English toffee, the flavor is mandarin orange.

Bookmark Café
Blount County Public Library
Hours: 9 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Monday - Thursday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday
865-273-1439

The Blount County Public Library used contract vendors to operate the Bookmark Cafe when the library opened in June of 2002. In August of 2004, the library took over the operation, Blount County Library business manager Nancy Norton said.

Library director Kathy Pagels said it was an attempt to be as attractive to library users as the popular bookstores Borders and Barnes and Noble, which also have coffee shops in their stores.

"It’s been the impact of the bookstores, and how they try to make their environment more conducive to long study and being there," she said.

Norton said business at the café has been great. "We’re steadily growing," she said. "People are shocked to find this in this venue."

Pagels said the overall popularity of coffee shops is tied to more to the atmosphere of the coffee shop.

"It’s the special coffees and the atmosphere and interaction that happen," she said. "We’ve got regulars on a daily basis who visit."

Brews Brothers Coffee Shop
3725 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Walland
Hours: 7:30 a.m. - 5 p.m. Monday - Friday and 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
865-696-5754

Brews Brothers manager Sheila Sizemore said her husband had a brother who lived in Blount County and the three of them
came up with the name.

"It’s just a name -- a play on Blues Brothers," she said. "It was really all their idea."

Brews Brothers has 900 square feet of dining space. The coffee shop is in a log cabin next to the Heritage Middle School campus and has been open about 18 months, she said.

Sizemore had a background in running a coffee business before she moved south from Michigan.

"I managed a coffee shop up north before I moved here and loved the business but didn’t want to go work for someone else," she said. "When this building became available, my husband and brother-in-law thought, ‘How about a coffee shop?"

Sizemore said it wasn’t her dream to open a new coffee house, but it’s not a bad way to make a living.

"It just all worked together," she said. "It’s such a low stress, relaxing kind of business. I went for the idea, and it seems to have worked out pretty good."

Sizemore said business has continually increased each month. "At first I saw a lot of tourists. Now I’m starting to see a lot of local customers. I think what people appreciate is the warm, cozy atmosphere. It has the flavor of the area with the cabin atmosphere."

Sizemore agreed with others who compared coffee shops to corner pubs of years ago. "They’re like the new kind of corner pubs you go to but you don’t have the alcohol atmosphere," she said.

Sizemore said her favorite drinks are mochas.

"What we sell most is the mochas. I’ve been trying to educate others," she said. "My goal in this shop is to educate people on how to drink coffee. So many people, when they get a mix espresso, it’s loaded with syrup, and they miss the flavor."

The Café at Southland Books
601 East Broadway Ave., Maryville
Monday - Saturday 10 a.m. - 7 p.m.
865-984-4847

Valerie Spence opened The Café at Southland Books in August of 2006. It was something she had always wanted to do.
"I love coffee shops." She said. "The people who go to a coffee shop, it’s the idea of that type of community that appealed to me. The opportunity presented itself through (Southland Books owner Lisa Misosky), so I seized the opportunity."

Spence said the shop has good and bad business days, but she’s optimistic.

"I guess that the same with any business," she said. "I feel pretty positive about the future. We have our own little niche. That makes me feel better. We’re continually talking about how to grow and how to get bigger. It’s not the best paying job but it’s the most fun."

Spence said coffee shops are becoming more popular throughout the country. "People all over the country, they want coffee as a treat you can do for yourself," she said. "You spend $3, and you’ve done something nice for yourself."

Spence said there’s also something to be said for people getting together to enjoy good conversation over quality coffee.

"So many coffee shops have started up in town because a whole bunch of people realized we didn’t have that and there was a need, kind of a void," she said. "It’s the idea of a community where there are the kinds of people who talk about whatever happens to be the subject of the day. It’s a safe place to exchange ideas. I know it may seem cheesy, but I think
it’s cool. There’s never a dull moment."

Capitol Coffee and Theater
127 West Broadway Ave., Maryville
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday - Thursday; 7 a.m. - 10 a.m. Friday; 9 a.m. - 10 p.m. Saturday.
865-980-1966

Capitol Coffee owner Heath Claiborne said his place opened in October. Since he opened he’s heard questions about competition.

"Customers come up to me and make remarks about competition and ask if I’m worried. I don’t know how other coffee shops feel. I don’t see it as competition. Most coffee shops have their own following. I don’t know that you can have too many, per se," he said. "In my situation, the customers appreciate the environment as much as they do the quality of coffee."

Claiborne said his coffee shop is part of his overall vision for the historic theater. "I came about opening a coffee shop as part of the whole overall vision I had for the theater. I wanted a high-end concession area," he said of the coffee shop. "When I open my theater later, my coffee shop will double as a concession area."

Claiborne said business has been excellent. "We’ve had a surprising good night traffic - it’s three-fourths of my business," he said.

Claiborne said he’s surprised how many people who come in who don’t want coffee. "There’s a coffee culture that includes smoothies and sweet drinks. A lot of people come into my coffee shop not even looking for coffee," he said. "We probably do at least a fourth (of their business) from smoothies and drinks that don’t even have a coffee flavor."

Claiborne said coffee shops are kind of a refuge. "That’s why it goes well with my environment of a theater. I’m trying to create an environment that has a different pace. People come here to sit down. They don’t feel obligated to leave. They can stay as long as they like."

The Coffee House
7967 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Townsend
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Closed on Tuesdays
865-771-4000

Jo Anne Funk, 48, spent 22 years in banking and always wanted to open a bed and breakfast. "The older I got, I thought it would be too much work. I thought, ‘How could I get to Townsend?’ I vacationed here for 18 years. I knew this is where I wanted to be. Ever since I knew what Townsend was, I loved it."

She and her husband, Arthur, own The Coffee House, an establishment she said satisfies her urge to own a bed and breakfast without the responsibilities of such a business.

"It’s a bed and breakfast light. You can make their coffee and talk to them, but you don’t have to make their beds or clean their bathrooms," she said. "This is a lot of work, way more than I thought."

Funk said she tried to make her establishment a relaxing environment. "I set it up to be comfortable. I call it a 20 minute vacation spot," she said

The Coffee House opened March 9. "Business has been very good. I’ve been profitable since I opened," Funk said. "I run my shop like money is not an object. I can focus on the product, the customer and satisfy them and let my husband deal with the books. I’m sure it affects me, but I don’t think about it. I’m not worried about wasting a cup on someone. I’m very free about letting people taste everything," Funk said. "If someone comes in and has never been to a coffee shop, I’ll ask if they like sweet or not sweet (drinks) and then I let them try something, and usually they’ll come back."

Grounded Coffee and More
321 High Street, Maryville
Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday
5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturdays; closed Sundays
865-696-4519

Lisa Williams opened Grounded Coffee and More at 321 High Street in Maryville on Oct.3. Coffee isn’t her only occupational pursuit. She also owns a real estate company, Foothills Properties.

Williams said she opened a coffee shop because there wasn’t much for teens and college-age people at nights and on the weekends. The daytime business in Maryville surprised her, though.

"We thought if we opened a coffee house and made it run well during the days, we could stay open at nights with entertainment and dancing. We haven’t totally reached our goal, but we’re working on it," she said. "I never expected the daytime business."

Williams said that teens and younger adults usually come by in the afternoons and evenings. She never anticipated the number of customers she would see during the mornings and early afternoons.

"That’s what is going to pay for nights -- everybody who comes in during the day," she said.

The structure is a renovated house. "Because it has different rooms, we have mothers who come in during the day and youth groups that meet in the mornings," she said. "I have two youth groups that meet in the mornings at 7:30 and have their devotional time before they go to school."

Williams admitted she had no expertise in the coffee house business.

"I’m not taking a salary, so it’s not going good enough yet, but from talking to people, they have said it usually takes a year or two for an eatery to support itself," she said. "It’s doing it now. It pays its own bills."

Williams said coffee prices affect her business differently than they might other businesses only in so far as she only sells fair-trade organic coffees. A fair-trade coffee means the growers were paid fair salaries for their work, she said.

Williams said many coffee shops will have organic, fair-trade coffee as a sideline, but all her coffees are fair-trade brands.

"I decided that I would only serve fair trade organic coffees. It is a little bit more expensive, but I don’t want to think that I am contributing 5-year-old kids picking cherries (a coffee bean before it is roasted) and working all day with family for a total of $3 day," she said. "The coffee actually tastes better. It’s a little bit more expensive but tastes better. It is definitely worth the extra money."

Williams said people in general, whether they’re 14 or 94, want a place that is comfortable where they can just go and sit back. "I have lawyers who take depositions in one of the room. I have pastors who sit here all afternoon with laptops and
get ready for Sunday morning sermons," she said.

Highland Grounds
In Bartlett Hall on Maryville College campus
Hours: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6:30 to 11p.m. Monday through Thursday. Closes at 3 p.m. on Fridays and is closed weekends
865-273-8828

Highland Grounds is probably the only coffee house or coffee bar in Blount County where the customers actually designed and helped build the facility.

"Some of the kids approached the school and asked if they could design it. They designed and painted it and did all the work
themselves," said Aramark employee Cathy Craig. Aramark manages food services for Maryville College.

Craig said that previously they operated on the ground floor before they moved one floor up into their current facility in August of 2006.

"We had a cart downstairs. Some of the kids wanted a place to hangout. Before, they didn’t have a place to hang out," Craig said. "It’s been a nice area for teachers to come talk with students. Sometimes they do interviews with people."

Craig said business has been good but during January it’s not as busy because not all students are on campus. "It’s been pretty busy. We doubled our business, but it’s slow right now," she said. "We have certain times when it’s busy, mostly in the mornings."

Mountain Mud Coffee Company
2162 East Broadway Ave., Maryville
Hours: 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. Monday - Friday and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday
865-379-8500

Heather Vargus started Mountain Mud Coffee Company in Maryville three and a half years ago, but it wasn’t the first place she and her husband operated the business.

"My husband and I started it in California about 10 years ago. It was called Sonoma Mountain Mud. We were at the base of the Sonoma Mountain," she said.

They relocated to Blount County four years ago. Mountain Mud was Maryville’s first drive-through coffee shop, Vargus said.
Vargus said the idea for a coffee house sprang from a bad habit.

"I had a really, really bad habit. I loved coffee and drank it all day, every day. I was a financial services manager and made a lot of money and could do that," she said.

Then she had her daughter and then gave birth to a son, and he ended up getting real sick, so she had to quit work to be with him. "We knew we’re going to do some that allows us to be with the kids more," she said. "We decided to open a coffee shop. We moved here to slow things down."

Vargus said business has been good, but she has seen a drop as other coffee shops or houses have opened. "I have lost my travelers. I used to have people come from Lenoir City and the West side of town. Those people I rarely seen anymore.

It’s down a little bit," she said.

Vargus said in some ways she thinks opening coffee houses has become popular because some may think it’s a cash-cow business that will be easy to operate.

"It just isn’t. I do it because I love it. I will not compromise on my product. I use nothing but the best chocolate or mixings," she said. "I think people get into it because they think it’s easy. I think if you do it right, you have to really love it and appreciate good coffee and not go with the cheapest of everything to make a higher profit.

"You have to be willing to work it, and I don’t know that a lot of people know how hard it is," she said.

Panera Bread
Hamilton Crossing
733 Louisville Road, Alcoa
Hours: 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday - Thursday; 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. Sunday.
865-379-2306

Panera Bread general manager Tom Leader said the store opened on July 16.

Leader said Panera’s draw is more about quick, casual meals than just good coffee.

"I think it’s more than coffee. It’s the quick, casual segment (of the restaurant industry). You don’t have to have a full service situation," he said. "You don’t have wait staff, and it’s not fast food. Quick-casual is a combination. It’s healthy food. You order your food, we make it fresh, and you pick it up yourself."

Leader said Panera is a place to kick back and relax. "The walls are plain, very simply decorated with soft lighting. It’s somewhere where you sit back with a friend and talk and not feel you’re pressured to get out," he said. "We get a very diverse crowd; all age groups."

Leader said business has been good and will get better as more potential customers learn about them. "I think the big thing is that we’re not known. People say they love our food," he said.

Leader said coffee is a small part of the store’s business. "I think the bakery, bagels, pasties and coffee are only 23 percent (of sales)," he said. "Most of our stuff comes from making breads, sandwiches, salads. I think you get healthy food."

Leader said all the bread and pastries not sold at the end of the day is donated to the Blount County Food Bank. "The philosophy is: ‘Feed the ones who can’t feed themselves and be part of the community,’ " he said. "I think part of the philosophy of the company I work for is giving back to the community."

Starbucks

  • 121 Cusick Road at Alcoa Highway, Alcoa
    Hours: 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday - Thursday and 5:30 a.m. to 12 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
    865-982-0642
  • 730 Watkins Road (inside Krogers), Maryville
    Hours: 7 a.m. - 9 p.m. Monday - Sunday
    865-681-4503

Starbucks started in Seattle’s Pike Place Market in 1971. The Starbucks coffee house at Cusick Road and Alcoa Highway opened on Nov. 17, 2006. The Starbucks in Kroger on Watkins Road opened in October.

Phillips said the company is always looking for great locations with people that love coffee. "Also, as we search to expand in markets, we look to provide more convenient locations for our customers and to reach people who may not have had the opportunity to visit our stores," Phillips said. "We’ve been warmly received by the Blount County community."

Phillips said people are drawn to Starbucks for various reasons but there are three things in particular: coffee, culture and
community involvement.

"We invest a significant amount of time and energy in buying, roasting, packaging and providing the best coffee in the world to our customers while creating an atmosphere where customers feel welcome and at home," Phillips said.

Phillips said Starbucks is committed to the long-term sustainability of coffee farmers, their families and communities. "We strongly believe that the success of farmers with whom we do business is a critical component of our own success. We believe our work with other industry leaders will strengthen coffee farms for the future," Phillips said.

Thunderhead Perk
7249 East Lamar Alexander Parkway, Townsend
Hours: 7 a.m. - 4 p.m. Tuesday - Saturday; From March - November also open 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Monday
865-274-8905

Jaimie Matzko and her husband, Michael, opened Thunderhead Perk in September of 2005. The popularity of coffee houses just recently became apparent.

"I think the coffee culture really has hit here in the past six months," she said. "I feel like I was at the front of the wave since I opened in September of 2005."

Matzko and her husband have lived in Blount County four years. Before coming to Townsend, she worked at a walk-up coffee house in Yellowstone National Park.

"I felt like Townsend needed to be exposed to the coffee culture," she said. "There were only a few options in Maryville at the time for a person to get a good cup of coffee or a latte. Where we have so many coming to visit the park, it was something really needed in this area."

Matzko said business has been going really well. She recently moved about a 100 yards down the road where she had walk-up business and started sharing space in the Bunkhouse Inn.

"I’m really excited. This has grown to be an area where people really want good coffee houses," she said.

Matzko said often a good coffee house often is as much about environment as good coffee.

"I found here in Tennessee, people want a place to gather and sit with friends and enjoy a cup of coffee," she said. "I think that’s part of the draw. People love a good product, but atmosphere I think is really important."

Matzko only sells shade grown, fair-trade, organic coffee. Shade-grown coffee beans are grown in areas where no clear-cutting occurred. Organic coffee beans have been raised without pesticides, and fair trade coffee is grown on estates or in locations where the workers were paid a fair wage, are treated well and have better opportunities to benefits like health care, Matzko said.

"I believe it’s good to buy coffee that’s good for the Earth and good to the people," she said.

Matzko said her favorite coffee drink is the Thunderhead latte. "It’s a blend of the espresso, steamed milk, honey,
cinnamon and fresh ground nutmeg on top," she said. "That’s a really popular drink."

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