The first Grind City Coffee Expo celebrating the coffee community in Memphis is set for Saturday, March 9 at Memphis College of Art.
In recent weeks, we’ve given you an insight into the coffee community by highlighting some of the specialty coffee roasters. Now we’re taking a moment to celebrate coffee shops and the role they play in our communities. They are where we gather to relate and connect over shared interests, where we buckle down and get work done, where we go to zone out from the pace of everyday life, and often where we find comfort and a great cup of coffee.
Nestled in the university district on Echles Street, Avenue Coffee is all of those things and more to its regulars. We sat down with the manager, Noah Randolph to talk about what makes Avenue special.
C901: How did you come to be involved with Avenue Coffee?
I was a freshman in college majoring in music as a drummer. I wanted to be a rock star. During that time I needed a place to study and get away from the mess of life that I was living because I was practicing drums all the time and I worked as a bank teller. I had a very structured and regimented life and I needed somewhere to go to that was my chill spot to study and relax. I ended up coming into Avenue one day and just fell in love with the atmosphere, the vibe, the people. They were very welcoming and friendly and I became really good friends with them pretty quickly. I kept coming back and eventually, I was here so much they offered me a job.
C901: How has Avenue shaped your relationship with coffee?
Noah: Avenue began as a nonprofit so they used volunteers for a while. I volunteered for about eight hours every week and learned slowly about coffee as I was volunteering here. That eventually led to a part-time job here which eventually led to a full-time job, and then led to me now in this manager role.
My growth in coffee has been greatly attached to this place. I started out knowing absolutely nothing. I couldn’t do a leaf in a latte art to save my life, and over two years got really good at that and I started to develop my craft. I’ve gotten to the point where now, I would say that I’ve developed it very well. At least the customers seem to like it, so that’s always a good sign.
C901: What are Avenue’s values and approach?
Noah: Avenue originally started as a nonprofit to give a sense of community in Memphis. The original project was envisioned in 2010, and so none of the coffee shops that were around today were around back then. It was kind one of the first of its kind to envision this place where community could be fostered, and that we could give people a better quality coffee there.
At the same time, it was a big thing of ours to provide study space and a late night shop option for students, especially. We knew we wanted to go to the University of Memphis area because we wanted to cater to that particular crowd. We wanted to give them a place where they didn’t feel like they were stuck away in a corner of a library or didn’t have to go to a bar to study. They could come to a place where they felt safe and chill out and study for long late hours.
We also wanted to involve ourselves in the local community a lot. So the neighborhood, Normal Station community, we’ve been really trying to make sure that as a coffee shop, we’re catering to the locals that live here. That’s something that I want to push even further— developing that relationship more because this neighborhood is very unique. I love being in this neighborhood because it’s not just a business anymore, it’s part of the neighborhood.
C901: What do you think sets Avenue apart from other coffee shops?
Noah: One of the things I’ve noticed is, you can sell a great product, you can sell a great cup of coffee and you can do that really well. You can develop the craft behind. You can develop a story behind that craft. You can say, ‘Hey, we source from the local vendor and you can build a story off of that.
But the thing that most coffee shops don’t have that I found that Avenue uniquely has is something that I never want to see lost— this sense of loyalty to our customers.
I had a customer four years ago who came in regularly. I knew his name. Then he left and moved to Arkansas and he just came back in last week and I remembered him, and we caught up. The sense of this as a place where you develop not just customer relationships, you develop friendships with the people that stick around. We have a huge regular base. I have a girl that comes in every week that’s like my “hummus girl” who loves our hummus more than anything, will buy it every week, every day when she comes in. If I change my hummus recipe, she’s the first one I make sure likes it. It has a special place for those reasons and I think it’s the main reason that Avenue is still here.
That’s the reason I got involved in coffee. It’s that connection with people.
C901: Does Avenue do any programming?
Noah: We do a lot of events here that I think really create community. I’m working on several right now that will be really good for the future. We’ve got a Smash Brothers Group that will start meeting on Friday nights during the summer. We did that actually some of the first years we opened and they moved, and then their community started to die because they didn’t have a central location. They just recently contacted us and said, ‘Hey we were the best when we were here. Can we do this again?’ We were like, ‘Of course!’ I’m excited about that getting them back in here.
I’m working to get a Pokemon Go community up and running. Pokemon Go was in everybody’s eyes at first and then it kind of died with most people, but there is this small tight-knit community of people that still play it all the time. I see it every day because I’m so involved in coffee shops. I see people playing it on their phones in coffee shops and it’s great.
You know, I’ll say this…
The communities for coffee oftentimes are crafted around a very particular story of success and entrepreneurship… around ‘We are separating ourselves from the rest of society’ in a lot of ways. ‘We are the elite. We are able to craft this business model that gets you away from the grime of Memphis and pull you into a more eclectic environment.’ And frankly, I’m not about that as a manager.
When you create communities that oftentimes exclude people that can’t buy a five dollar cup of coffee, that’s a problem to me. That’s always something that’s in the back of my mind. I want to give people the options to have cheaper cups of coffee and create those communities for people who may not necessarily care about the tasting notes, and the quality of coffee being like fine dining. And I love talking about that. I could talk two days about the notes in something but I don’t want that to be to the exclusion of Memphis and the community in Memphis. That to me is the biggest factor in developing our communities, making sure that we’re very inclusive in what we do.
What does the existence of a Grind City Coffee Expo say to you about the state of the coffee community here?
I love the idea of multiple coffee shops banding together and crafting a quality product for the rest of the community to experience. I love that every shop has its own specific product that you get to taste. I love the idea of going to recyclable products. I think it’s a great start for Memphis, in particular. I think it shows the heart of Memphis. I’d love to see more events like this in the future honestly, and I would like to see them open up to more people.