As Stacey Eames wrestled with bad addictions in her early 20s, a sponsor in a 12-step rehab program introduced her to specialty coffees. That was before Starbucks entered Atlanta.
Beyond getting sober, the encounter set Eames on twisting path that eventually led her to launch coffee carts, a bakery and, eventually, a popular intown Atlanta coffee and restaurant chain that draws weekend crowds with its carefully crafted, made-from-scratch foods. About the last thing she says she thinks about is money.
Eames’ Highland Bakery has about $7 million in annual revenue, 200 employees and five restaurants, with plans to add perhaps that many more soon.
She also has a coffee kiosk business, Java World, with two locations at Georgia Tech. Now, if only she could find a way to cut her startlingly long hours at work.
What we do is very high labor cost when you do things from scratch, which is very important to us. We even mill the grain.
It’s the little things that add up to the overall taste, the overall feel. That’s the reason we have standing lines on the weekends.
I did training with employees who are responsible for preparing the food. What I like to tell them is that for every calorie I consume, I want to make sure it counts.
When you prepare a sandwich, go cover to cover with your spread, go cover to cover with your cheese, with your meat. Because the bite that (the customer) takes at the end should be as good as the bite that they take in the middle.
It is all about the care and the passion that you put behind something. If I can instill that in our employees, then I’ve done a good day’s job. It’s not just about making money. That’s probably the last thing I think about.
Her father, Paul Eames, was a minor league baseball player/coach in Albany, Ga., and, with Eames’ mom and grandmother, ran a restaurant called “The Hit and Run.” She dreamed of becoming a sports broadcaster, but after college worked in apartment leasing around the country.
I was on a very unhealthy path. I had some drinking and addiction issues. I went to my boss and said, “I need to go into treatment.” I was 24. Prior to that I always wanted to own a bar. When I went into treatment, I saw that probably wasn’t a good idea.
I never wanted to own a restaurant, because I saw my parents in the restaurant business. It is a very hard business. And also some of my addiction issues centered around food, you know, eating disorder. The more controlled the environment that the food was in, the better I thought my chances for recovery were.
My first sponsor (in a 12-step program) had a little cappuccino machine. We would sit and talk over cappuccinos. I started to fall in love with the cappuccinos and lattes. I bought myself a little machine, and I would take it on all my trips.
I ended up on an assignment in Seattle. I would go and hang out with the local coffee cart vendors. A few of them really took me under their wing and started to teach me about the espresso cart business. I started researching. I started saving my pennies.
This whole specialty coffee business had not hit Atlanta yet.
Two years later she won approval to put a coffee kiosk inside Piedmont Hospital.
I typed up this thing (for the hospital’s food service director): “30 Great Reasons to Have an Espresso Cart.” I just kept at him. He saw that I was enthusiastic.
I think I got it started for maybe $15,000, from friends giving me a loan, my parents. The last $60 I had in my bank account, I had to take that out on my very first day of business so I would have enough change to give back to customers. I just prayed that I would make enough money that day to buy milk and supplies for the next day. It worked.
I was set up down in the basement, which is kind of a crossroads for the hospital. A lot of people didn’t understand what we were doing. It was just me by myself at first. And then I brought on another employee. We talked to everyone who walked by. We gave out samples. We became the fun part of the hospital.
The number one thing is to be personable and authentic: Let people know you care about the quality and you care about them. I wanted to make a difference in every person’s day that came up to my coffee cart.
The first year I probably paid myself $6,000, and I got to pay off the coffee cart and my espresso machine. A year after I started my business, Starbucks came to town, educating people on a mass scale. My business doubled immediately.
She expanded to new locations, some of which didn’t work as well. Later, a company she subcontracted through bumped her out of a prime location. She worried about the same happening at other spots.
I didn’t know what my future was going to be. A friend said, “Hey, do you want to open an ice cream shop with me in the Candler Park area?” I said, “Sure.” Then I was looking for other ventures.
She helped open a downtown Atlanta cafe. While buying food for that business, she met a father and son who recently opened the Highland Bakery.
I really loved the authentic way they were doing their baking. (But) he was just not having an easy time of it. I bought it from them in 2004 and added more of the restaurant component and the pastries and what not.
As I’ve expanded, it’s not like I’ve had a big influx of cash. I’ve kind of piecemealed everything. I’ve gotten equipment from auctions. Sometimes the layout (in the original building) hasn’t been like I wanted. That creates a space that is inefficient.
We have no automatic dishwasher here because the city changed the code and said you can’t unless you have an underground grease trap, which is like $40,000. Had I spent that $40,000 quite a few years ago, it would have more than paid for itself.
Eames starts work around 4 a.m. most days, working seven days and 90 to 95 hours a week. She has struggled to delegate duties while building the business.
We have had very organic growth. What that has done is devoured me.
On her slate this year is improving efficiencies in the business and opening a number of new locations, including at Georgia Tech, Emory, near the Old Fourth Ward, close to Decatur and, possibly, outside the Perimeter.
This is going to be a big evolution year for me, as well as (for) the business.
Eames’ comments were edited for length and clarity.