My favorite hangout is a tiny coffee shop in greater Decatur, where the staffers know their customers by name.
Even though I don’t drink coffee, I stop by the Corner Cup almost every day. I love the “family” feel of the place, where regulars greet one another, and the staff is ready to chat about whatever interests you.
And, yes, I have a regular order. In fact, they often start making it as soon as I walk in the door.
What they pour me is not coffee. I first asked my mom for a taste of java when I was about 3 years old, and I didn’t like it at all. I never changed my mind. (I also didn’t like my first sip of beer … but I got over that.)
When the Corner Cup opened near our home in April 2016, I wanted to patronize a local indie business, so I figured I’d drop by to get hot chocolate or green tea.
Then, Patrick Hinh, one of the original partners in the shop — along with Rich Lavery and Tess Cook — asked if I’d ever had matcha. Patrick was the one who was always trying to get me to try new things. I told him I didn’t even know what matcha was. (This was before the healthy powdered tea was ubiquitous.)
So, he made me a matcha green tea latte, and I was hooked. (His effort to get me to like kombucha was not as successful.) They also offer matcha in other hot and cold drinks.
Of course, you can get coffee, espresso, latte, hot chocolate, cold brew, smoothies, frappes, various seasonal drinks (like my wife’s favorite, the Red Hot Winter, a latte with cinnamon, dark mocha, a drop of cayenne and whipped cream), and bags of coffee beans, ground or unground. Plus, fresh squeezed orange juice, and local baked goods and sandwiches from Duck’s Kitchen, Emerald City Bagels, H&F Bread Co., and Heavenly Cakes (gluten-free). There are magazines and books to read, puzzles and games for the kids, and the work of local artists on the walls (and for sale). They have free Wi-Fi and power connections, and you’re encouraged to hang out.
It only took a couple of times of ordering the matcha drink before Tess began greeting me with, “Bill, your yoozh?” (her shorthand for usual).
I was thoroughly charmed by Patrick, Tess, Rich, and Tess’ brother Salem — and how they genuinely seemed interested in what I had to say.
After a few months, I mentioned that I soon was retiring from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Come my retirement day, the Corner Cup crew surprised me with a framed print of what was going on in the world the day I started work. Talk about the personal touch.
In our chats, I learned that Patrick, Tess and Rich had worked together in the restaurant business, winding up at Pea Ridge Kitchen, which opened in 2015 as the first locally owned, non-chain restaurant our neighborhood had seen in ages.
Hearing customers say, “I wish we had more places like this around here,” Rich and Tess were inspired to consider running a morning coffee cart outside the restaurant. Instead, they discovered a small storefront was available in the same shopping strip, and the Corner Cup was born.
They asked Patrick to join them — a good thing, since he was the only one of them who’d ever worked in a coffee shop. “I didn’t even really drink coffee,” Rich admitted. (He does now.) Patrick brought along his imaginative teapot collection as decor.
Rich’s dad drove down from Connecticut to build out the space, and they contracted with Beanealogy, a local roaster that has family ties to the Selva Negra estate in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, where the beans are grown.
Soon, the partners were serving coffee, making conversation and, most importantly, making friends. Drinking coffee “really is a ritual,” Rich said. “And it’s a way of connecting with other people.”
When Rich worked at a Bennigan’s restaurant at age 15, he learned the importance of greeting guests immediately. At the Corner Cup, you get a hello and a goodbye.
“You’re going to leave here with a smile on your face, hopefully,” he said.
The neighborhood embraced the Corner Cup right from the start, with regulars ranging from retirees to children.
Tess’ favorite memory from the early days involves the elementary school-aged son of a regular, who always was excited to tell her what he’d learned. One morning, about 6 a.m., the kid wanted to share a song he’d learned: Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Recalled Tess: “Salem and I were working that morning. We stopped everything to listen to this sweet kid sing his heart out. The line started to back up to the door, but I don’t think anyone minded. I mean, who wouldn’t want to start their day to something this precious?”
Still, other aspects of life beckoned, and Tess, Patrick and Salem left the Corner Cup in July 2017. Rich was committed to staying, though, so, with his family’s help, he bought out Tess and Patrick, was joined in the business by his life partner, Michael Vorndran, and set about hiring a staff, many from among his customers.
“The people we hire are all really invested in our community,” he told me. “They live in our neighborhood and work in our neighborhood. It adds something extra that the people they serve are neighbors.
“I don’t look for coffee knowledge, or people who know how to work the equipment. It’s easy to train that. You can’t train personality.”
One customer who became a staffer is Justin Finegan. “I lived in the neighborhood for two years before I took this job,” he said. “I knew maybe six of my neighbors. Over the past two and a half years, since I’ve been working here, it’s probably not a stretch to say I know 200 of my neighbors.”
Justin usually is there when I come in on weekday afternoons, and we talk about everything, from sports to politics. He majored in philosophy in college and jokes that he uses his degree every day at the coffee shop. “This is a practical application.”
Rich, who lives two blocks from the original store, now has a second location in downtown Tucker, and his staff has grown to 18. The business, he said, is his life. “Once you own a business, it consumes every thought you have.”
But, he still spends mornings at the original Corner Cup shop. “It kind of feels like this is home now,” he said. “I want people to treat it like it’s my home, and they just come and hang out with me.”
The Corner Cup. 2625 Lawrenceville Highway, Decatur. Open 6 a.m.-7 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 7 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. 770-674-5721, facebook.com/TheCornerCupCoffee.
Bill King is a retired writer-editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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