Spotlight: Calders Coffee Cafe 1

Traveling through a winding verdant tunnel deep in North Carolina’s Nantahala forest, Leigh and Clay Hartman’s 12 year-old-son weighs in on their potential move from Charlotte to the tiny mountain town of Highlands.

“My soul is here. When can we move?”

Despite harrowing curves on the 4,100-foot ascent as you drive up to Highlands, the journey is remarkably peaceful. Especially in the summer. The landscape is flush with rhododendron, mountain laurel, sweet gum, native azaleas, ferns, mosses – an abundance of native flora.

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And when other towns across the South reach peak temperatures of 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit, Highlands rarely breaks into the 80’s. As I write this, temperatures in Americus are projected to top out at 96 degrees (one of many such days in July and August). Today’s projected high in Highlands? A crisp 73 degrees.

Moving to Highlands, North Carolina

So, amidst the backdrop of one of the most delightful summer landscapes of anywhere in the United States, the Hartmans make a new life for themselves. Nearly a year after moving to Highlands, they purchased a coffee shop on Main Street.

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Buck’s Coffee Cafe in Highlands became Calders Coffee Cafe on May 1, 2019. The date was coincidentally Leigh and Clay’s 20th wedding anniversary.

The name, “Calders,” is a nod to the early days of their relationship. It’s the name of a Scottish pub in Charleston where Leigh and Clay had one of their first dates.

It’s a Scottish-Gaelic word that means “stony rivers,” an apt descriptor of much of the Highlands-area landscape.

Becoming Coffee Shop Owners

Becoming coffee shop owners happened after two very successful and intense careers for both Leigh and Clay.

Leigh retired from 15 years at Bank of America where she worked as a business transformation executive, helping the financial giant navigate acquisitions during and after the financial crisis of 2008.

Clay retired after 25 years in the U.S. Navy where he served as an attack pilot, and had most recently worked for 10 years leading a North Carolina-based renewable energy company.

The early mornings, hard work, determination and entrepreneurship necessary for running a coffee shop came naturally to Leigh and Clay.

But what the couple was really looking for when they started Calders was a sense of community.

“I wanted a place where people could feel like they belong,” said Leigh, who had grown to appreciate the sense of community that Clay’s career in the Navy had brought to the family.

“In the Navy, you really learn this reliance on community. Everything depends on everyone else. If anything happened, I had an instant community,” she said. “When Clay was deployed, I’d wake up at 7 am., and my lawn would have already been mowed. Everybody adopts someone else. There’s very much that feeling that you belong.”

When they first purchased Highlands’s Main Street coffee shop, Leigh sensed that customers were concerned that they might lose the sense of community that Buck’s had cultivated for some 18 years.

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Clay Hartman, co-owner of Calders Coffee Cafe.

“Literally our first week, we had people who looked terrified that we would change. It was overwhelmingly clear that people wanted a positive experience from the company and our staff,” she said.

Fostering Community at Calders

In the year since the Hartmans have owned the coffee shop, they’ve made every effort to protect their customers, fostering a welcoming, approachable environment.

For starters, they kept all of the original staff from Buck’s. They also kept their price-points affordable. They added more lunch items. They kept Cafe Campesino on as their primary coffee offering (thank you!). They added beer, wine and cider to their menu. They added more grab-and-go and souvenir-style items for the tourists who flock to Highlands to fish, hike and cool off during the summer.

Since the on-set of the Covid-19 pandemic, they’ve instituted social distancing measures, keeping their cafe open for carry-out only, and they’ve adhered to the local mask mandate. Most recently, they’ve been working on a pre-order and pick-up system where customers can bypass a line to pick up their pre-purchased food and drink orders.

Supporting Other Community-Oriented Businesses

Calders’s support for small-scale and mission-oriented businesses goes beyond their selection of Cafe Campesino coffee. Their wines come from small-production and family-owned producers around the world. They source Wehrloom Honey, an apiary based in Robbinsville, NC, where Leigh’s mom grew up. They sell Imladris Jams, which produces hand-crafted jams using fruits grown on nearby Western North Carolina farms.

They also source products from Erin Bakers and 1 in 6 snacks, two companies working to end food insecurity, and Clean Cause Sparkling Yeba Mate, which gives 50 percent of its profits to support recovery from alcohol and drug addiction.

Plan a Visit to Calders

With their selection of products, their friendly staff and their emphasis on community, Calders is ready to welcome you for a visit.

They are open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Hours are 7 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Calders Coffee Cafe
384 Main Street
Highlands, NC 28741

Learn more about their company story and their menu online.

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Inside Calders Coffee Cafe in Highlands, North Carolina.

bucks coffee cafe sign with antlers on top

Steve Clark has probably made over 1 million lattes since he moved to western North Carolina back in the early 2000’s.

Watching him work on a busy morning is a lesson in barista efficiency. He stands squarely in front of a silver La Marzocco – never leaving his station – steadily building lattes and cappuccinos in the order they were received.

He pours rosettas and tulips and hearts with perfectly steamed milk. He casually chats with customers as he builds their drinks – one right after the other.

If you make it to Buck’s Coffee Cafe in Cashiers during the height of the summer (peak tourist time), you might have to wait 15-20 minutes for Steve to prepare your drink. Sometimes there are 12-18 people in line at one time. Steve never gets flustered.

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Steve Clark, co-owner of Buck’s Coffee Cafe in Cashiers, North Carolina.

A Day in the Life of a Coffee-Shop Owner

As the co-owner and operator of Buck’s Coffee Cafe, Steve is a work-horse. He’s at the shop by 4:30 a.m. and opens it by 7 a.m. When he’s not pouring lattes, he’s making breakfast sandwiches or lunch paninis. He supports his staff through the breakfast and lunch rushes, then heads home around 2 or 3 p.m. On most days, he’ll run 5 or so miles after work. The rest of the day is devoted to his three kids.

“I have to physically exhaust myself to quiet the mind,” he says. He’s easily been working this hard since 2008 when he opened the Cashiers location with Tommy and Linda Clark (no relation). Before that, he had been a key employee at the couple’s original Buck’s location in nearby Highlands.

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Buck’s Coffee Cafe in Cashiers, North Carolina.

When Steve met Buck’s

When Steve first moved to Highlands from Florida, coffee wasn’t on his radar.

“I was an alcoholic and an addict,” he said. And he credits Tommy and Linda with changing his life.

“Linda says I was their first hire, but that’s not how I remember it,” he said recounting the first time he met her. “I was literally walking down the street and she was trying to get in the front door and had her hands full, and I literally opened the door for her.”

That single gesture of kindness was the spark that earned Steve a job at the soon-to-open coffee shop in Highlands, as well as a place to live. “The house I had been living in burned down,” he recounted, explaining that an apartment above the coffee house served as his home for many months.

Later, his work at Buck’s introduced him to the woman who would become the mother of his children. “Although we’re not together anymore, I have three children as a result. I don’t think I would have the family that I have now if I didn’t work here.”

And, becoming a dad was the impetus for his sobriety. “There’s a good chance I’m dead or in jail without them,” he said.

Working for Tommy and Linda at the Highlands coffee shop offered Steve a foundation for how to manage people. According to Steve, Tommy and Linda take care of people “for the long-haul,” and they did things like offer health insurance to employees long before other coffee companies were doing such a thing.

two men pose for a picture
Steve Clark (left) and Tommy Clark (no relation) are partners in business at Buck’s Coffee Cafe in Cashiers, North Carolina.

Leading with Kindness

Now, Steve treats his own employees – mostly college-aged, seasonal staffers – with the same support and trust he got from Tommy and Linda.

“It’s very important that my employees know that as long as they’re making a good effort, then I’ve got their back,” he said. “It’s okay if they make a mistake. It’s even OK if they make a big mistake, as long as they’re showing up on time and not being disrespectful.”

The welcoming and supportive culture Steve fosters at Buck’s in Cashiers extends to all customers – no matter their background or socio-economic level. “It’s important to me that everyone feels comfortable here,” he said. And to that end, Buck’s remains open year-round for locals. During the slow winter months, the Cashiers’ population dwindles back down to its permanent residents, which the 2010 census lists as 157 people.

A single random encounter with Tommy and Linda radically changed Steve’s life. And because of their kindness, he is forever changed.

“They mean a lot to me. If my kids end up being similar to Tommy and Linda, I’ll be blissfully happy. Just absolutely blissfully happy.”

Tommy, Linda and Steve opened Buck’s Coffee Cafe in Cashiers in 2008. In addition to coffee and light food items, the location also offers a collection of wines, and artisan-designed home decor, including paintings by Tommy and Linda’s daughter, Dawne Raulet. In 2019, Tommy and Linda sold the Highlands store to Leigh and Clay Hartman, who have since rebranded it as Calders Coffee Cafe.

Stop by Buck’s
Buck’s Coffee Cafe
6 NC-107
Cashiers, NC 28717

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Home furnishings, wines and artwork are also available to purchase inside Buck’s in Cashiers.
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The coffee bar at Buck’s in Cashiers.
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Buck’s special dark roast blend in Cashiers.
sticker of drip-thru coffee between a fair trade and organics image

Written by Martin Deen, owner of Drip-Thru Coffee

Since we started Drip-Thru Coffee and opened our first shop in 2016, we’ve always planned to run the business in an ethical way.  For us, that meant things like looking for local suppliers, choosing ecologically sustainable packaging, and looking for other ways we could have a positive impact with our business. 

Fair Trade: a Must for Drip-Thru Coffee

Given our primary product, coffee, is mostly an imported good, that also meant Fair Trade.  Fair Trade is trade that adheres to standards of social, economic, and environmental practices that provide a sustainable livelihood, empowerment, and a safe environment to the communities with which we trade.

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Martin and Christy Deen of Drip-Thru Coffee found ripe coffee cherries while visiting farmers at the Asociacion Chajulense during a recent coffee origin trip to Guatemala . November 2019. Photo courtesy of Drip-Thru Coffee.

This began with our roaster Cafe Campesino who imports Fair Trade coffee as a member of Cooperative Coffees.  We’ve relied on their guidance and experience in sustainable and fair importation of specialty coffees from all over the world.  But this year we had the opportunity to see part of that process first hand by making a trip to Guatemala to visit with some of the co-ops that export the coffee and the farmers who grow it.

Meeting with the passionate people in Guatemala involved in the Fair Trade movement was eye-opening. 

– Martin Deen, owner of Drip-Thru Coffee
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Bill Harris of Cafe Campesino and Martin Deen, Drip-Thru Coffee co-owner, near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala . Photo courtesy of Drip-Thru Coffee.

A Life-Changing Coffee Origin Trip

We’ve made an effort to be informed cafe owners, studying with the Specialty Coffee Association to become certified as baristas.  This study included information on how coffee was grown, the process involved in exporting and importing, and other information about coffee trade.  Diligence in study was important, but it was also important and life changing to experience the coffee country that is the origin of this beverage we all love.

Meeting with the passionate people in Guatemala involved in the Fair Trade movement was eye opening.  Our visits with Asociacion Chajulense and Manos Campesinas let us meet men and women who are devoted not only to producing quality coffee but also helping their communities and empowering the coffee farmers they work with.  They were excited to share their time with us and give us so much information and background on what it takes to bring coffee to market.  They also shared with us the struggles involved in keeping farms, co-ops, and small-scale coffee production going in Guatemala.

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Juan Solis Brito, Chajulense coffee farmer and promoter, with Christy and Martin Deen in Chel, Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Drip-Thru Coffee.

Seeing the small farms in a beautiful country where our Guatemalan coffee was grown was wonderful.  But meeting the farmers who are involved, engaged, and eager to remain informed about the journey their coffee makes to its final destination was truly revelatory.  While we play different roles in the coffee industry than the farmers we met, we all shared a sense of community being part of Fair Trade coffee as a whole.

In the end, it was an adventure of discovery of people as much as landscape or experience.  Making connections across distance and barriers of language revealed our common passion and labor towards delivering good coffee while honoring the people that made it possible.

While we play different roles in the coffee industry than the farmers we met, we all shared a sense of community being part of fair trade coffee as a whole.

Martin Deen

Martin & Christy Deen own Drip-Thru Coffee, which has two drive-thru coffee locations in metro Atlanta. Martin wrote this piece after he and Christy returned from Guatemala in November 2019. Visit Drip-Thru locations at: 50 HWY 138 West in Stockbridge, Ga., and 1515 Virginia Ave. in College Park, Ga. Learn more at https://www.dripthrucoffee.com/

Espresso brewing into a white demitasse cup.

One of the biggest equipment costs for any coffee shop will be its espresso machine. This purchasing decision is important and can be complicated for a variety of reasons.

Common Mistakes in Buying Espresso Machines

The two most common mistakes people make when purchasing espresso machines is either underpaying or overpaying. Before making your purchase, have solid answers for these three questions:

  • How busy is your shop going to be?
  • What is your personal budget?
  • What bells-and-whistles are must-haves for your espresso machine?

I often use a car-buying analogy when I’m consulting with wholesale customers or students on this issue. Don’t buy an economy car when you need a heavy-duty vehicle. Don’t buy a Ferrari when your budget only supports a Ford.

You can spend a ton of money on a top-of-the-line espresso machine, but a higher price doesn’t mean that it’s the best or even the right machine for you.

Types of Espresso Machines

The first decision you will need to make is determining how big your machine needs to be.

The number of group heads, or groups, determines the number of shots you can produce at a time. Do you anticipate being a high-volume shop? You may want a three-group espresso machine. Are espresso-based drinks only a small portion of your beverage menu? You might want a one-group machine.

In addition to determining the number of group heads, you will also need to decide how much control you want to have over each shot.  

There are four types of espresso machines that each give you a different capacity to control the flavor profile of your espresso shot.  They are: Manual, Semi-Automatic, Automatic, and Super-Automatic.

Manual Espresso Machines

Manual machines require a lot more barista training, but they offer the barista more control over the flavor profiles of the end-product. On a manual machine, the barista can control the pressure of the espresso shot, which is a key variable that determines the strength and extraction of the final cup.  Most modern manual machines offer pressure profiling. This allows the pressure to be varied throughout the shot, but also set by a computer to help maintain some consistency.

Semi-Automatic Espresso Machines

Semi-automatic machines are generally no-frills machines where the barista must start and stop each shot.  The barista can influence the brew time (another important variable that impacts strength and extraction) by controlling when to start and stop a shot, as well as through grind size and tamp. The pressure of the water as it moves through the coffee puck is controlled in a semi-automatic machine. This is my favorite type of machine. I learned to pull espresso shots on this type of machine, and it was a great vehicle to learn about the variables that impact espresso. It is typically more user-friendly for beginners than a manual machine.

Automatic & Super-Automatic Espresso Machines

Automatic espresso machines don’t quite do it all for you, but can take a lot of the guesswork out of the barista’s hands by programming shot volumes. If you want a super-automatic espresso machine, it will pull shots, texture milk, and even auto-clean for you. You will pay for that convenience.  High-end super-automatic single-group head espresso machines can $15,000 or more. A Semi-Automatic might be priced as low as $3000.

Buyers should beware a bargain, though! If it seems too good to be true, it usually is.  It’s easy to fall in love with the price point of a $1,200 machine. Unfortunately, this is either a high-quality home machine that won’t have the power to keep up with your needs as a coffee shop, or it’s a low quality machine that claims to be commercial grade.  In my experience, a low-quality machine both makes bad coffee and breaks down frequently. When it breaks down, it will also be difficult to find service technicians and replacement parts for it, because there will be fewer of those types of machines in commercial use.

It’s important to remember that your espresso machine is where you make most of your money as a coffee shop. When it breaks, you lose money. You should invest in a quality piece of equipment from a reputable brand, like Nuova Simonelli, La Marzocco, or Rancilio, that has service available in your area.

Automatic 2 head espresso machine with two coffee bean grinders, cleaned and ready to brew. Clean coffee cups stacked on top.

2-Group vs. 3-Group Espresso Machines

Most shops do best with a two-group machine, and that means expecting to spend closer to $5,000–$11,000 (or more, depending on the make and model). Unless you know you are going to be EXTREMELY high-volume, then you can probably save the money of investing in a three-group machine.  Two well trained baristas can work faster on a two-group than one person producing coffee on a three-group machine.

Within each of these classes of machines, there are different grades. For example, a three-group Rancilio Classe 5 Automatic Machine may cost around $8,000. The same size Victoria Arduino Black Eagle Gravimetric machine, with all of its bells and whistles, can run upwards of $25,000.  At the end of the day, you can literally spend as much as you want on your espresso machine.

Choosing the Right Machine & Parts Dealer

Where you buy your machine will also have a big impact on your cost. Most of the prices quoted in this blog are from online retail stores, specifically espressoparts.com.  If you buy your machine directly from an equipment dealer or manufacturer, they may offer package deals that could include purchasing an espresso grinder at the same time.

Many dealers also include installation and warranties for the first few years.  Personally, this has always been a major selling point, especially for new businesses. You will want to minimize the downtime of your machine and be able to call a qualified tech if something breaks.  It’s also possible that the dealer will have a showroom where you can try out different machines, which is the case with my personal favorite dealer in Georgia, Espresso Southeast.

Whatever machine you choose, just make sure that you know how to use it properly.  At the end of the day, the person running the machine will dictate your drink quality, not how many gadgets the machine has.

Key Questions to Ask Before Opening a Coffee Shop 15

As a specialty coffee roaster, we regularly meet interesting, passionate people from a broad array of backgrounds who aspire to opening a coffee business. In fact, one of the most exciting and challenging parts of my job is collaborating with fellow entrepreneurs to think through coffee business concepts, lend our experience and expertise to their planning, and support them with the roll-out and launch of their new coffee shops. Even more exciting is watching these coffee businesses take root, hit a sustainable rhythm, and grow.

Ask Those Who’ve Been There

Over the course of our 20 years in business, we have been mighty fortunate to work with folks who have – through blood, sweat and tears – built successful coffee businesses from the ground up.

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Drip-Thru Coffee serves many regulars each morning at their Stockbridge and College Park, GA location.

The Sentient Bean in Savannah, who started about the same time we started Cafe Campesino,  have taught us so much about community-building and coffee house sustainability. Our friends at Drip-Thru Coffee in Stockbridge and College Park also come to mind. They are boldly and successfully introducing the specialty-coffee, drive-thru model to the Atlanta metro region.

We’ve also met our fair share of people over the years who for one reason or another were unable to launch their coffee shop or keep their doors open. Based on those experiences and more, here are some of the key questions I believe every aspiring coffee-shop owner should be asking themselves.

What is your time-frame, and is it realistic?

Rome was not built in a day… most of our successful customers have planned for at least several months – sometimes even years- in advance of opening. Whether or not you are building a new coffee spot from the ground up or upgrading an existing operation, everything will take longer than you think. If it takes less time, be happy!

Do you have enough capital to fund the planning, build-out, outfitting, pre-opening and ongoing operations for the first year?

Do you have enough money to pay yourself until the business generates enough revenue to pay you? ‘How much capital does it take?’ is a frequent question. And, yes, it depends.

Build it or buy existing?

Are you planning on building your business from the ground up? If so, the resources needed are significant. I suggest that folks also consider looking for an existing business to purchase. Many small-business owners want to exit their businesses (for a number of reasons). You might help them do that. Maybe there is an existing coffee house in your target neighborhood that is for sale (or could be)? Buying an existing business is worth considering, because it already has infrastructure in-place and comes with a customer base. Plus, you might be able to find out from the owner what has and hasn’t worked for them in that location.

Is your new coffee business expected to provide all of the income for your family?

It is not recommended that a family (with or without children) relies on a new coffee business for all of its income. That is extremely stressful, risky, and not good for relationships.

Location. Location. Location?

Is there regular, daily foot traffic? Easy parking? Will you stand out or blend in among other businesses? Yes, location makes or breaks a coffee house business. Consider questions like: Is your location easy to access during non-rush hour and rush hour? What is the traffic count, and is it sufficient to drive sales? Will parking be easy or congested? Do you share parking with other vendors? Is there enough reserved parking spaces for your business? What types of businesses surround you, and do they attract the same types of customers you seek? Is your location within walking distance to residential and business communities? If your model depends on foot traffic, are there enough pedestrians to sustain your business?

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Many coffee shops find they need to also sell food to be able to generate big enough average ticket sales.

Sales… what do you need in gross sales each month to pay your costs of goods, payroll, and overhead expenses?

To generate the sales revenue you need, do you need to also sell food? (The answer is most often yes.) How many tickets do you need per day, and at what average value? 150 tickets at an average of $10 per day? 300 tickets at $7 per day? Will your location support that number of tickets per day? Will the customer-base spend an average of $10 per visit?

How are you going to generate the foot traffic you need to generate the quantity of tickets you need?

“Build it and they will come” does not work… aggressive community engagement, social media presence, promotion, and fast, happy, excellent customer service are critical. Great online reviews are necessary.  Will you be able to manage the various online review sites where your customers will post? One of the best ways to learn what works and what doesn’t is to study successful coffee houses. For your own business, you should consider having someone designated for generating new customers and keeping existing ones.

Eye-opener (at least for me it always is)… How many $10 tickets does it take, for example, to pay for $2000 in monthly rent?

If you operate on a typical restaurant financial model – with expenses budgeted at 30 percent of gross revenue, then you need at least $6600 per month in revenue just to cover rent… this does not include your other expenses! If your average ticket is $10, then in a given month, you would need 660 tickets to cover the rent. In a 30-day month, that translates into 22 tickets a day… just to pay the rent.

Stamina and going it alone…

Building and running a new business is hard work and requires an above-average amount of stamina. Do you have the energy and resilience it takes to work 7 [long] days a week? Can you do it for the first year or longer?  Are you a good multi-tasker? Can you talk to to customers while you are making their breakfast or their latte?

Finding a good working partner can help immensely, not only to share the workload but also the stress that comes with being a business owner. While not everyone is built for working with a partner (I respect those who have the capacity to go-it alone), I believe that most are. The key is knowing each other on a deeply personal level, getting clear on expected investment of time and capital, responsibilities, etc… and agreeing to an amicable exit strategy if the partnership doesn’t work out. Regardless of what some folks say, friendship is part and parcel to any viable, sustainable business partnership… at least in my experience.

Takeaways

Finally, among the various elements lying at the heart of sustainable coffee house businesses, I would highlight the following three:

  • Make a habit of solid business and financial management systems and practices. You will need a good bookkeeper to help you track your costs of goods and expenses. It will be impossible to know if you’re making money if you don’t accurately track your COGs and expenses.

  • Keep a robust sales and marketing function.  Even when things are going well, your best customers will move, your competition will increase, your best-trained barista will get a full-time job.  You must keep generating new customers.

  • Your commitment to win-win relationships with key stakeholders….. from the hard-working women and men who grow your coffee, to the roaster who supplies you with your most critical ingredient, to your food vendors, staff, the community that surrounds and supports you, and the customers who come back day-in and day-out. The key to all of these is creating win-win relationships all around. Your sanity will depend on it.

General rule of thumb from a cranky old business mentor… “if you want to improve your chances of success with a new business, take your sales projections and cut them in half, double your projected expenses and the amount of time it takes to launch and reach breakeven, and if you have the grit and capital to survive these conditions, you stand a good chance of making it.” A little Draconian but a valid point all the same.

Helping to grow our coffee business has been one of the most exciting, and rewarding endeavors of my life. I am consistently inspired by the work-ethic and creativity I see from everyone along the supply chain- from our trading partners to my fellow coffee entrepreneurs. But my work is not done. It’s never done, and I know now that coffee businesses are not for the faint of heart.