Reprinted from December 2012 issue of Sense magazine -- Fairhope, Alabama
By Joshua D. Givens
"One thing is certain about coffee. Wherever it is grown, sold, brewed or consumed, there will be lively controversy, strong opinions and good conversation."
These words by independent American author, speaker and scholar Mark Pendergrast certainly ring true for coffeehouses throughout Mobile. On any given day, tables at our local java shops are brought to life by best friends sharing secrets over simmering lattes, well dressed businessmen saving the world with a single phone call and frazzled college students cramming for tomorrow's final exam. Mobile is home to a diverse array of coffeehouses, offering consumers a bevy of options for finding that perfect blend of brew and atmosphere. And behind the lively discussions and pungent aromas are unique differences, captivating stories and a history richer than a caramel macchiatto espresso.
It's no secret that the American coffee industry is dominated by national retailers like Caribou Coffee and Starbucks, the latter raking in over $11 billion in profits last year according to the company's annual 10-K report form. Local coffeehouses are oftentimes forced to find ways to survive in what has become one of the most competitive markets in the American food and drink business. For many owners, the economic battlegrounds of advertising, consumer comfort and unique products can be a challenging and expensive war to wage.
Two of Mobile's most renowned locations are Satori Coffeehouse and Carpe Diem Coffee & Tea, both seated on Old Shell Road. Satori, a Japanese-Buddhist term meaning "sudden enlightenment," opened its doors in 2001, proudly serving locally roasted coffee, Chai and green teas, Italian sodas and the occasional smoothie. Befitting of its label as a coffeehouse, Satori operates out of a 1930's home not far from the University of South Alabama. The house was originally home to Satori Sound, a local music record store, until the coffee shop section was built in 2001. With its colorful interior, eclectic decorating style, outdoor patio seating and friendly neighborhood atmosphere it is no wonder that Satori has become synonymous with with the local coffeehouse experience. Owner and manager Charles Cox says his shop is a popular "hangout spot" for students at South Alabama.
"Our average customer is usually between 22 and 23 years old. Students often come over to study in between their classes and to use our free wifi."
Having a solid customer base is one thing, but competing with local and national coffeehouses is another.
"[As a local owner] you really don't want a Starbucks sitting right on top of you," says Cox. "But if it wasn't for nationally recognized names like Starbucks, people wouldn't know much about the local shops. We do better every year [financially]. Old Shell Road is sort of a coffee highway, but we are far enough away from other local shops so competition isn't too bad."
Satori was once one of three coffeehouses in the area alongside Dr. Java and Beaners. Now, Satori is the last one standing. Cox says events and advertising have been crucial to his success.
"I have a lot of success advertising in the Vanguard campus newspaper at South. I also see a lot of traffic on Facebook with people tagging themselves and their friends at Satori. We host music events and art shows. Local artists contribute much of what you see on our walls."
Just a couple miles down the road at Carpe Diem Coffee & Tea, patrons enjoy what owner Tomi Sue Rusling says is "their own public living room." Her description is no misnomer. Carpe Diem is not so much a shop as it is a 100-plus year-old Victorian era home.
"There is a sense of belonging here and the house has good karma," says Rusling. "People have written books here, they've met their future husbands and wives here and they all love our coffee."
Visitors entering through the front door are immediately greeted by burgundy walls, pastel paintings and shelves lined with merchandise. Carpe Diem sells everything from mugs, t-shirts and herbal teas blends to coffee machines, kettles and key chains. Still, no business venture is without challenges. After 17 years of serving only the finest roasted coffee to the Springhill and greater Mobile community, Rusling has seen the highs and the lows. She says loyal customers have been essential.
"When Starbucks came in [to Mobile], they circled us like a band of Indians. The students at St. Paul's started a campaign that said 'friends don't let friends drink at Starbucks.' Competition is always good because it forces you to focus on what you do best."
For coffee lovers awaiting new developments in the Mobile area, you're in luck. Owner Teri Days will be opening The Bean & Bistro by mid November. Located at 249 S. Greeno Road in Fairhope, they will serve espresso coffee, cappuccinos, smoothies, pastries, Panini sandwiches, wraps, salads and even hummus spreads. Days says she expects to see a wide demographic of customers.
"We will get a lot of moms and dads picking their kids up from the nearby schools and dance studio. There are also some offices and a hospital in our area, so we'll see some businessmen and women and some doctors and nurses too."
You can find out more about The Bean & Bistro by visiting their Facebook page here.