Photos by Jordan Black
Honestly, if I didn’t know that James Yoder was the founder of Charlotte’s most acclaimed and fastest-growing coffee bar, Not Just Coffee, I don’t think I would have guessed it. James is quiet, not the type to call attention to himself or brag about his successes. He is calm and easy-going. He has this kind of humility not usually associated with successful people, but I guess that makes sense when you hear about his humble beginnings as a business owner.
James recalls an interaction with a customer when Not Just Coffee was still a brand-new business, having recently moved into their 7th Street Market location in uptown Charlotte. This was before the 7th Street we now all know and love- back when it was just an empty industrial space with a lone barista quietly setting up shop every morning:
“I would see this businessman walking by the 7th Street Market every single morning through the glass. It would just be me behind the bar, no baristas, no customers. Nothing. 7th Street had just started, NJC was two months old- there was literally nothing and nobody else in the building.
This guy would walk by every day, and one day I saw him come towards the door and open it. So I got all excited like, “All right! A customer!” He ordered a pour over and I made him one. It took an average amount of time- three or four minutes. He took a few sips of his coffee and then told me that it was really great coffee but that this business was never going to work.
“You’re never gonna make this work,” he told me, “You’re gonna go out of business because nobody is going to wait this long for coffee.” And then he just walked out, leaving me alone in this great empty space. My heart was breaking; I was all by myself. And I was like, “Shit… what if he’s right?”
But that man’s words weren’t existing in a vacuum. After all, six years ago when Not Just Coffee first opened, there were no shops offering hand-poured (“pour-over”) coffees in Charlotte. The coffee scene was dominated by batch-brewed coffees in airpots, mass-produced syrup flavors and frappes. These things aren’t inherently evil, don’t get me wrong. But what Not Just Coffee was doing was wholly unique to the city of Charlotte.
Inspired by quality-focused conversations they had with the folks of Raleigh-based roaster Counter Culture Coffee, James and wife/business partner Miracle aimed to create a business that didn’t simply serve coffee as a means to an end (caffeination), but one that approached coffee as a craft. An art. A creative endeavor. When recalling tasting his first pour-over coffee at the Counter Culture HQ, James describes it as if a light bulb turned on in his mind, “I remember thinking that this is how coffee should taste. It was so good!” and so he took that inspiration and ran with it.
I make it sound so simple, don’t I? Trust me, it wasn’t. In those early days, James often worked fourteen-hour days between his job at a hotel and Not Just Coffee. Miracle worked long hours to help them make ends meet. The shop’s sales were small, but each one was a victory: “Brad [their first NJC barista, who still works with them to this day] used to text me each time we sold a drink,” James chuckles, recalling a time when they would maybe only sell three or four cups of a coffee a day. It was not easy nor simple, but James and Miracle had a vision that kept them moving forward.
When asked about how they conceptualized opening Not Just Coffee, James says, “I approached it with more of an artist’s mind than a businessman’s mind. That’s how I initially approached the world of coffee, and that’s what I aim to still do. My goal is to never sit in an office, shuffling papers to figure out how to sell more coffee and make more money. I want to us to sell coffee because we’re making really beautiful and truly great coffee.”
This is clearly a model that has worked. Not Just Coffee is arguably Charlotte’s favorite coffee company. With almost exclusively five-star ratings on Yelp, over 5,000 likes on Facebook and numerous accolades throughout the years, I think it’s safe to say that the Not Just Coffee crew have much to celebrate.
To add to their list of reasons to get pumped: their third Not Just Coffee location is in the works and is tentatively scheduled to open before the beginning of May. Located at the Packard Place co-working space in uptown Charlotte, this shop will be NJC’s first brick-and-mortar location. Unlike their other two bars (both inside farmers markets), the Packard Place NJC is its very own shop, giving the Yoders full creative freedom of ambiance, menu choices and space use.
“I want the space to be very clean and sophisticated, to really drive home the idea that coffee can be a sophisticated beverage,” said James.
With talk of evening table-side siphon services, minimalist decor, wooden roofing accents and a locally-inspired artisanal toast menu, it’s clear that the Yoders are at it again, creating a wholly unique space for local coffee enthusiasts to enjoy the craft that is coffee. They tend to do that, those Yoders: merging accessibility and refinement seamlessly, stepping up the coffee game by sheer love of service, and inviting everyone who is interested to come, sit, drink and enjoy.
“I feel like if you do something really well, and you do something with excellence, people want that. People are interested in something that is different. They respond to that… You know, if we do coffee really well and customer service really well, it’s just going to go up from there.”