Starbucks locations are as ubiquitous as Alabama mosquitoes these days. In our increasingly homogeneous culinary retail landscape, anomalies must be exceptional to succeed. After all, Starbucks is doing something that a whole lot of people like: producing consistent, if predictable, coffee-based products in familiar and hospitable settings.
So imagine the surprise I felt earlier this spring when it was announced that the Starbucks location in Crestline Village would be closing. Not to worry caffeine-addicts, Crestline Starbucks manager Cal Morris recognized the fact that there was still a market for a coffee establishment in the area and wanted to find a way to preserve his way of life on the corner of Church Street and Euclid Avenue. Having overseen the store’s operations for more than 8 years, Morris really knows the neighborhood and his customers, his friends. He just couldn’t imagine not seeing those people every day. Besides, he knew the financials enough to know the location as a coffee shop was a success.
He took a leap of faith, quit Starbucks, took over the lease, and created Church Street Coffee and Books.
Morris is not alone in this venture. In addition to a steady crew of other former Starbucks team members and coffee-shop veterans, he has Carrie Rollwagon as a partner.
A former Starbucks alumna herself, Rollwagon also experienced great success as the book buyer for the former Jonathan Benton Booksellers in Mountain Brook Village. She shares a keen sense of what makes this community tick, both in a cup and on the printed page. “Mountain Brook, as a whole, values education and reading,” Rollwagon says. “Residents value buying locally. This is a great fit for the community.” Morris and Rollwagon want the store’s inventory and environment to be customer-driven.
Inside Church Street Coffee and Books, Rollwagon’s selections fill a few choice tall towers and book covers serve as artwork, set in shallow Tudor-style wainscoting. A special nook was carved out for younger patrons where they can hole up with books all their own. Rollwagon also has ideas for book clubs and story-times, and is developing a way to offer eBooks.
Décor and layout are only part of this transformation. The real question is this: how is the coffee? Fortunately, Birmingham is home to an incredible artisanal coffee-roaster in Primavera Coffee Roasters. This three-person outfit is headquartered just behind Miss Myra’s Barbecue in Cahaba Heights and consistently produces hand-crafted coffee. Their offerings are seasonal, and their batches are smaller than those of commercial chains. Just like a tomato picked at its peak from your garden tastes infinitely better than the one picked green in Florida, ethylenegassed to ripen and sold in a Styrofoam container, Primavera coffee benefits from being harvested when ripe and has more complex flavor profiles.
“Our number one priority is getting the coffee right,” Morris says. Brett Burton of Primavera Coffee Roasters adds, “We trained everyone making coffee at Church Street. When you order an espresso at a commercial outfit, the barista presses a button on the super-automatic and the cup is filled to the calibrations of the machine.”
Burton trained Church Street baristas on creating the perfect espresso by hand “grinding a specific amount of coffee, tamping it by hand, watching the flow rate and color. These are the skills needed in creating artisanal coffee-drinks. Morris has a world-class grinder and espresso machine, and they make great coffee.
What about those customers who have been trained to order a drinks like the “doubleshot-venti-caramel-machiatto-no-foam-lowfat-room-for-cream cup”? Morris and his team share a giggle. One of the most popular drinks at the former Starbucks location was a sugar-freevanilla-non-fat latte. Some customers bristled at trying to remember the lengthy title, others felt emasculated by uttering the name. To make things easy, they just started calling it “The Bob.”
Named after no one in particular, it was just The Bob. Regulars felt comfortable ordering it and, everyone knew what it was. In Crestline. Not so at the other myriad Starbucks locations. They were confused in Vestavia Hills, confounded in Trussville, stumped in Hoover. So The Bob is definitely on the new menu. Customers can easily ask for a specialty drink or just a regular cuppa.
Church Street Coffee and Books appreciates its connection to the neighborhood and strives to be just what its friends and neighbors want and need. They’ve just opened the doors for business this past week and plan to be open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Offering free wi-fi, Morris, Rollwagon and their crew are eager to have their friends back in to see them. Comments and feedback are encouraged so this little spot on the corner can once again be the neighborhood coffee shop everyone knows and loves. People may not always like change, but this seems to be one that’s for the better.
Christiana Roussel lives in Crestline and is a lover of all things food-related. You can follow her culinary musings on-line at ChristianasKitchen.com or on Facebook (ChristianasKitchen) or Twitter (Christiana40).