Thomas Blanche, of Tupelo, Mississippi, opened his first coffee shop, Uptown Coffee, in Oxford in the summer of 2002. He followed that with High Point Coffee at the corner of Poplar and Perkins in Memphis, a coffee-roasting and distribution center in Tupelo, and another High Point Coffee that opened a few weeks ago at the corner of Union and Belvedere. He doesn't plan to slow down anytime soon.
"Location is crucial, and good locations aren't easy to find. But our goal for the near future is to open at least two more coffee shops in Memphis and north Mississippi," says Blanche.
Asked about the competition, especially Starbucks, Blanche offers this view: "Starbucks made the coffee industry what it is today. Before Starbucks, people would've never spent three, four, five bucks for a coffee drink, and owning a coffee shop would not have been a very lucrative business. That has definitely changed."
Blanche's coffee shops are designed so Starbucks fans feel at home. He intentionally didn't stray too far from specialty coffee drinks, drive-through windows, and easy-to-access locations. However, Uptown and High Point aren't just copies of Starbucks. "We can turn on a dime when changes need to be made," Blanche says. "That's the advantage of a small, independently owned business."
Scones, muffins, cookies, and small pastries are made in-house, Blanche takes care of the roasting, and there's complimentary Internet access as well as closed-caption television in case you're stuck in that long line of people who can't start their day without a cup of joe.
Uptown Coffee, 265 N. Lamar, Oxford (662-513-0905); High Point Coffee, 4610 Poplar (761-6800) and
1680 Union (726-6322)
Daniel Taylor, Mike Shelley, and their partners are also wooing the coffee-drinking crowd with a familiar yet distinctively different concept. Bluff City Coffee, scheduled to open this month in the South Main Historic Arts District, is designed to be that neighborhood coffee bar that meets your everyday coffee and community needs.
Bluff City Coffee, which will serve Italian gourmet coffee, has state-of-the-art brewing equipment and free Internet access. The contemporary interior, designed by Archimania, is in contrast to Bluff City's historic pictures of downtown Memphis.
Asked about Starbucks and its omnipresence, the guys from Bluff City don't see the big player as a big problem. "Our coffee is definitely going to be different from what you get at Starbucks," Taylor says. "And we care about South Main. We want to be a neighborhood coffee bar."
Once Bluff City is off and running, Taylor and Shelley want to start roasting their own coffee and expanding the business by adding more stores.
Bluff City Coffee, 505 S. Main (531-7979), www.bluffcitycoffee.com
Coffee has been the business of Lucia Palazio Heros' family since the early 1900s. Originally from Nicaragua, Heros, who lives in Memphis, came to the United States as a little girl in the 1970s when her family fled the country. Now, Heros is the only family member left in the U.S. Her parents and two brothers have returned home to tend to the family's coffee plantation in Nicaragua's Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve.
Heros and her siblings recently decided to take charge of the business from start (growing the beans) to finish (selling the coffee) and are now marketing Café Las Flores, their estate-grown specialty coffee -- a premium Arabica hand-picked and roasted in small batches to preserve freshness.
The Palazios have made it their mission to provide customers with a product that can be traced back to its source. (Including, for the truly dedicated coffee lover, a trip to the family's plantation.)
If Nicaragua is too far to go, look for Heros' next barista-training and coffee-appreciation class in Memphis at www.cafelasflores.com or call 647-4321.
Café Las Flores is available at High Point Grocery, Inside Out LifeGym, Mantia's, Miss Cordelia's, and online.