Textiles are out: is drive-through gourmet coffee the answer?
There once was a time when almost every Sears department store had a Fotomat in its parking lot, a little box on the asphalt where you could drive up to the window and drop off your film to be developed. Those seem to have disappeared sometime before the advent of the digital age.
But since then Starbucks came along and helped cultivate a taste for gourmet coffee among Americans. Since people are willing to shell out upwards of three bucks for value-added products like espressos, cappuccinos and steamed lattes, and since they’ve gotten in the habit of leaving the house for it, it was only a matter of time before the drive-through gourmet coffee house emerged on the scene.
The stores have proliferated on the West Coast and in the Northeast. Mike Saintsing, who owns Java Jo’z Coffee & More with his wife Mary, hopes the idea will catch on in Greensboro too.
The eight by twenty-four foot kiosk ‘— whose shelves are packed with bottles of Ghirardelli chocolate sauce, cans of Bellagio hot chocolate mix, bottles of Dr. Smoothie fruit juice concentrate and bulk bags of gourmet coffee beans ‘— sits on a sea of asphalt in front of a sleepy Big Lots store and across the street from a carwash.
It’s a quarter after six on an overcast and warm Thursday morning long before sunup. Saintsing, who lives in rural Davidson County, pulls his car to the doorstep of the little structure and steps out wearing a black shirt and blue short pants. He immediately enlists me to help him carry in a half-dozen gallons of milk.
‘“You’ve got to get up early for this,’” he says.
The air is warm, so he slides open the two drive-through windows right away, allowing a cool cross current to ventilate the kiosk. He pours a pitcher of water into the coffee urn and begins the day’s first brew. Within five minutes, the coffee is ready and he invites me to pour myself a cup. Made from CaffÃ© D’arte, a small roaster in Seattle, it possesses a bold and savory taste.
The next piece of business is to run hot water through the espresso maker to clean the aluminum filters, followed by ‘pulling shots’ to get the right strength. He fills the bowl with ground espresso bean, tamps it, taps the sides and tamps it again. The temperature and humidity affect the way the machine runs, he explains. If the liquid runs through the grounds in less than 15 seconds, the brew will likely be too weak. If it takes longer than that, it will taste bitter.
Saintsing takes a sip, sloshing the espresso around the edge of his tongue, and quickly concludes that the drink needs some heft. He adjusts the grinder to a finer setting to get the right boldness.
It’s barely 6:30 and a licensed practicing nurse, with a stethoscope hung around his neck pulls up outside the window in a blue Toyota pickup and orders a caramel latte.
Erudite wit is not a customer service requirement when you’re dealing with groggy, early-morning commuters. Having a goofy sense of humor goes a long way though, and the customers often respond in kind.
A customer who looks like an ex-Marine catches me trying to take photographs inside the kiosk and warns: ‘“Don’t take a picture of Mike; it’ll break the camera.’”
To which Saintsing quips: ‘“We’ve got a real comedian on our hands here.’”
Before seven, two of Saintsing’s employees ‘— a young African-American woman named Laren Hutton and a Massachusetts transplant, Gail Mercurio ‘— show up and throw on green aprons. By this time, cars are arriving two or three at a time, although there will also be lulls in the action.
A cab driver, a regular, pulls up and mutters a complaint to Saintsing.
‘“My friend, it did not snow last night, but you are going to have a good day,’” the good-natured barista replies. Whereas others pray for money the cabbie prays for snow so he’ll have more customers, Saintsing explains. Then, as he hands him his drink, he promises: ‘“It’s going to snow tonight.’”
It seems unlikely. The temperature is hovering around 50 and the air is pregnant with precipitation, but not the solid kind.
The customers sometimes come 8 and 10 at a time, Saintsing says. Other times there’s no one, and the employees busy themselves with cleaning. Today things are pretty slow. The customers are teachers, consultants and roofers. Saintsing, Hutton and Mercurio know most of their names and usually know a little about their lives.
Saintsing and his wife, who works at the store on weekends, came to the gourmet coffee business late in life. They opened Java Jo’z last July.
‘“I worked in the textile industries for twenty years in sales,’” he says. ‘“You know what happened to that.’”
First he and his wife considered opening a sit-down coffee shop but a consultant advised them that there was a market opportunity for a business catering to people too busy to get out of their cars. The drive-through would also require less overhead than a traditional store.
‘“We’ve done okay so far,’” Saintsing says. ‘“We’re still not where we need to be financially. What’s encouraging is that we have a really loyal base of customers and we see new people every day.’”
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