It used to be, back in the pre-pandemic days, that Arkansas’s coffee shops buzzed with long lines and full tables. The coronavirus pandemic changed all that. We’re a year in on masks and social distancing, but walking into a popular coffee shop at peak hours and finding only a few customers still feels like “The Twilight Zone.” The pandemic hit the downtown Little Rock coffee scene particularly hard. Zeteo Coffee’s River Market location closed in July. Blue Sail Coffee recently announced it will no longer operate out of the Little Rock Technology Park on Main Street. Zeteo Coffee and Blue Sail Coffee’s Conway locations both remain open. People haven’t stopped drinking coffee, but the way people consume it is changing. If you look around your Zoom meeting, most of the coffee you’ll see is home-brewed. Personally, I’ve been brewing large pots of drip coffee and not leaving the house for days at a time. And I didn’t even have a drip brewer before the pandemic.
Many industries have had to pivot and coffee is no different. Roasters are exploring the avenues of e-commerce by offering online merchandise, coffee shipping and subscription services. As coffee shops close for lack of in-person customers, the Arkansas roasters who send their beans through the mail are going strong. There’s no shortage of locally roasted, delicious coffee in Arkansas. Roasters that sell online and will ship beans to your door include Brave New Restaurant, Fidel & Co., Doomsday Coffee (Fayetteville), Stirling Roastery (Booneville), Guillermo’s Gourmet Coffee, RoZark Hills Coffee Roastery (Rose Bud) and Big Cuppa Roasting (Morrilton).
Supporting local businesses is more important than ever. Most of us are already drinking coffee; we might as well help our local shops keep their doors open while we do it. We don’t even have to get out of our PJs.
Geovanni Leiva, owner of Leiva’s Coffee in North Little Rock, started drinking coffee when he was 18 months old. He grew up on a coffee farm in the mountains of eastern Guatemala. “My parents gave me coffee in a bottle, which I told them was probably child abuse, but they explained to me that at the farm, drinking coffee was considered a very good thing for a child,” Leiva said. Leiva is understandably affectionate about coffee and ended all of his emails to me with “Stay caffeinated my friend.”
Last March Leiva’s Coffee lost over 80 percent of its income when all the pandemic-related closures began. Leiva’s primarily sells its coffee wholesale and is the main supplier of coffee to the Capital Hotel (which has remained closed) and the Little Rock Athletic Club. It also provides coffee to Dillard’s corporate headquarters and different churches around town. “To be flat honest, we almost died,” Leiva said.
Leiva’s family has been growing coffee in Guatemala for more than 60 years. He moved to the U.S. on a college scholarship with his parents’ life savings of $20, a shoebox of belongings and the clothes on his back. He spoke no English, but became fluent in eight months and graduated from UA Pulaski Technical College in about 18 months. He became a computer programmer, which he did for 14 years. All along, he kept going back home to Guatemala to visit his family. He came up with idea for Leiva’s Coffee on one of those trips after reading a Chinese proverb that said, “If you give a man a fish you will feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you will feed him for a lifetime.”
Leiva said that is exactly what happened to him. “I was broken out of poverty because of capitalization and education,” he said. “So I was like, ‘Why can’t I do this back home?’ ”
Leiva taught himself to roast coffee by watching instructional videos. “We use a state-of-the-art Diedrich roaster and I’ve been roasting for close to 4,000 hours,” he said.
The coffee Leiva roasts in North Little Rock is harvested by his parents in Guatemala, and some of the proceeds go directly back home to serve the village. Through the nonprofit Lan Vwa, his family helps educate 75 kids in their farmhouse, which now serves as a school.
“We just bought electricity three years ago,” Leiva said. “These are the people I grew up with; these are my friends, my family, my community. We have a great mission. So I knew I had something special, but at the same time, I didn’t want it to just be this cool, warmy-feel story. I wanted it to be an amazing product.”
Leiva’s started offering subscriptions before the pandemic, which helped keep the doors open last spring. “I pivoted and was like, “OK, I gotta go subscription-based,’ ” Leiva said. “You can pick whatever frequency you want, and we will roast your coffee 38-42 hours prior to delivering it to your door. Our goal is to grow that to about 2,000 people, and we’re way off that. I mean, we only have 200 people total right this second. But during the COVID days, it’s been growing.”
Subscribers save 10% off the retail coffee price and the roast of their choice is delivered in 12-ounce or 5-pound bags of whole bean or ground (drip, medium or extra-fine). Merchandise and K-cups are also available on Leiva’s online store.
“I think in March or even sooner we’re going to run a promotion that your first bag is going to be free. Then after that, every third or fourth bag is going to be free. So there’s going to be different promotions we are running,” Leiva said.
Blue Sail Coffee
When Kyle Tabor opened Blue Sail Coffee in Conway in 2014, he was sleeping in the back of the shop to save money. These days, he’s buying coffee 63,000 pounds at a time from Brazilian farmers for the venture.
“It was a very small operation when I first started,” he said.
Since then the company has started roasting, wholesaling, visiting farms and building relationships with farmers.
Blue Sail Coffee is roasted at a facility in North Little Rock and sold in The Green Corner Store, Boulevard Bread Co., Arkansas Whole Foods locations and Target.
“We’re the smallest company I know of that’s inside of Target, which is a pretty big deal for us,” Tabor said.
Last year, Tabor started looking into what it would take for Blue Sail to become an online company.
“Right about then is when COVID hit,” Tabor said. “At that point, it was like, ‘Well, good thing we’ve been thinking about this because now we have no other option.’ So we just doubled down on that.”
Tabor said in a telephone interview Jan. 29 that he had fresh news: As of that day, the Blue Sail location in the Technology Park on Main Street would be officially closing.
“Just due to a couple things COVID-related,” he said. “I mean, everybody’s working [remotely] so there’s not customers for us downtown anymore.”
In a follow-up interview Feb. 24, Tabor said his company’s pivot to e-commerce required more than just making the product available online.
“We are taking a different approach from most companies [and doing] a full e-commerce subscription build-out. Since the last time we talked, I went to Iowa and recruited a business partner to join the team that’s going to run the e-commerce side of things. Next week, I’m going to Costa Rica to buy our first coffee subscription specific coffee. When you get to the level I’m at, relationships are everything. Of course, while I’m down there I’m going to have some fun in jungles, swimming in some waterfalls and doing some spearfishing in the ocean. That’s the upside of the job, for sure.”
Tabor said that it wasn’t hard to add a subscription option to his company’s website but that to become a subscription company, “Is something entirely different. And when I realized that, we actually went out and raised capital. We raised a quarter of a million in like three months to become a subscription-based company.”
Tabor said they’re still in the construction phase of the online build-out.
“We plan on really making ourselves available as that company at the end of March.” In the meantime, the Conway shop will remain open, and you can subscribe on Blue Sail’s website. You can choose whatever blend you want and have it delivered every two weeks or monthly.
“We have hundreds of subscribers,” Tabor said. “We’re shipping coffee all over the United States and people seem to really like it,” he said.
Tabor said he and his team are grateful for the wholesale revenue coming in, and they’re taking the pivot to e-commerce very seriously going forward “Because we have to. These cafes that aren’t roasting that didn’t have an online presence prior, this is just so tough, you know?”
Arsaga’s Coffee Roasters
“It’s hard to think of now, but coffee shops as we know them didn’t really exist in the Midwest or South in the early ’90s,” said Jason Arsaga, coffee director of Arsaga’s Coffee Roasters. When Cindy and Cary Arsaga, founders of the family coffee dynasty, applied for their first loan to open a coffee shop in Fayetteville in 1992, the bank replied, “You want to open a donut store that doesn’t sell donuts?”
After 13 years of running coffee shops in Northwest Arkansas, Arsaga’s family-owned operation started roasting in 2005. Due to customer demand, it began offering subscription services in 2017.
“We currently offer a few subscription options that include a roaster’s choice, espresso or a blend of blends that can be delivered weekly, bi-weekly or monthly,” Arsaga said. “The benefit to customers is that they can get fresh coffee delivered to their home on a schedule. For customers who choose our roaster’s choice option, they also get first access to new coffees as they come in.”
Arsaga said that it usually has 20-40 subscribers and that subscriptions have not increased since the pandemic started.
Arsaga’s at the Depot in downtown Fayetteville remains closed for the time being. Arsaga’s opened Arsaga’s Mill District last fall in south Fayetteville. In 2019 the company opened a drive-thru location affectionately known as “Carsaga’s” at 1509 MLK Jr. Blvd. in Fayetteville.
“The drive-thru has been our lifeline during all of this,” Arsaga said. “It was a little risky to try to take the concept of high-quality coffee service to a drive-thru model, but folks have responded very well to it.”
Red Light Roastery
Adam Moore, roaster and co-owner of Red Light Roastery in Hot Springs, said his coffee shop started offering subscriptions about two years ago and that it has grown quite a bit over the past year.
“We are about to promote it more across all social media platforms to see how we can grow more,” Moore said. The coffee house was closed to the public from March to May of last year, and Moore said they took that time to work on online ordering and streamlining their shipping department. “We added all our products in the coffee house to our online shop platform,” Moore said. Merchandise like enamel pins, keychains and tumblers are available on its online store as well. Subscriptions, which include 1-pound, 2-pound or 5-pound bag options, arrive the first week of each month and you can subscribe for three months, six months or a full year. Customers can choose between whole bean, ground (coarse, medium or fine) or K-Cup pods.
Onyx Coffee Lab
Onyx Coffee Lab has locations in Fayetteville, Bentonville and Rogers. In addition to subscription services, it offers virtual classes on home brewing. Onyx was recognized nationally at the 2020 U.S. Coffee Championships last February in Costa Mesa, Calif., with employees Elika Liftee and Lance Hendrick winning first and second place in the Brewers Cup Championship and barista Andrea Allen taking home the first-place prize in the U.S. Barista Championship.
Onyx’s subscription service offers savings on 10-ounce, 2-pound or 5-pound bags that are delivered every two weeks or monthly. Sustainability and design are taken into account. Bags come in sleek recyclable boxes and, although the coffee bags are made with nonrenewable plastic and foil, they’re 60% compostable.