Dave Fafara says he bought coffee roaster Shenandoah Joe 15 years ago because he couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee in Charlottesville. My how times have changed.
Shenandoah Joe recently opened its fourth retail location, adding a Harrisonburg outlet to its formerly three-store roster. After selling the beans wholesale and at City Market for eight years, Fafara opened his first coffee shop, the Preston Avenue fixture that’s become one of C’ville’s favorite spots to grab a cup of java, in 2007. A store in Ivy focused on pour-over coffees followed two years later, and last year Shenandoah Joe took over the former Corner Cup space behind Boylan Heights with little fanfare.
Indeed fanfare is not Fafara’s forte. And he likes it that way. When Men’s Journal named Shenandoah Joe one of its top-11 coffee shops in the nation earlier this year, you would have expected him to shout it from the rooftops. He said it was “pretty cool.”
“That’s how we are,” Fafara said. “The one thing we like to do is provide people with good service and a good product and just keep doing it, but not with all the pomp and circumstance that other people do.”
Shenandoah Joe certainly isn’t alone in providing a decent cup of coffee around here. Fellow coffee roaster Mudhouse opened its first retail spot on the Downtown Mall in 1995 and now has five locations. Oh, and that little joint called Greenberry’s, with its humble beginnings in C’ville in ’92? It’s gone and stretched itself to 13 locations in places as far flung as Wayne, New Jersey, and frickin’ Saudi Arabia.
Trager Brothers Coffee, based in Lovingston, has been doing the retail thing since ’93 through its Higher Grounds shops and opened a roastery in 2007. Most recently making coffee news is Shark Mountain Coffee, owned by Shenandoah Joe-alum Jonny Nuckols, who’s raised enough crowd-sourced funding to break the business out of its Darden Business School confines and open a new production facility on East Market Street at Market Square.
But Fafara still figures his own little coffee empire brings something unique to the table. His secret? “Relationship coffee,” he says.
“I have relationships with the farmers, the producers, the co-op managers if the coffee comes from a co-op, and the people who mill the coffee,” Fafara said.
Fafara said he regularly travels to coffee producing nations and often makes an effort to work with smaller producers who he can pay a per-pound premium in an effort to strengthen the relationships and give him first rights on future batches as the farms grow.
As if to prove his point, 12 hours after he sat down with C-VILLE Weekly to talk about his company’s recent expansion, Fafara set off for a trade show in Seattle. He said he planned to “cup,” or taste, between 125 and 150 coffees on the trip to find the new and exciting. He said when it comes to point of origin, he’s not partial to one area of the world. If it’s good, it doesn’t matter if it’s from El Salvador, Ethiopia or Sumatra.
Fafara’s expansion strategy for Shenandoah Joe has been somewhat less meticulous. A former University of Virginia swimming and diving coach, he said he resisted opening a retail outlet for years while his wholesale customers prodded him to do so. When he broke down and opened Preston Avenue in 2007, he thought he was done. But opportunities kept falling in his lap. He’s been approached over the years by people looking to open coffee shops all over, including Long Island, and so it was with Ivy, the Corner and Harrisonburg.
“It came out kind of cool, didn’t it?” Fafara said of the Corner joint. “What we did was close it for like four days, went in there and it was kind of like Bar Rescue. We painted, did some woodworking, cleaned it up, changed the concept and the equipment a little bit, slapped our name on it and didn’t tell anyone.”
Likewise, Fafara said he just “took advantage of an opportunity” in Harrisonburg. A group of folks in the ’Burg were familiar with Shenandoah Joe’s widely distributed magic beans and asked him if he’d be interested in expanding. Once again, he decided to take a shot.
Fafara’s old school like that. And he’s old school when it comes to coffee. He likes it black and claims to have never had one of those “frou-frou” milk-based coffee drinks. But that doesn’t mean his coffee shop is behind the times. The Ivy location started doing pour overs well ahead of the trend when it opened in 2009, and today Shenandoah Joe is leading the charge on coffee growler fills. (We’ll see how that goes.)
“I want every cup that you get to be a cup that I would enjoy,” Fafara said. “One of the cool things that we do is educating our customers, whether it is a wholesale or retail.”
Oh that damn retail.