When Not Just Coffee first opened in 2011 it was the first of its kind in the small but rapidly-expanding city of Charlotte, North Carolina. Owner James Yoder, who at the time simply had a love for coffee and fine dining but no formal barista experience, unknowingly helped to create a catalyst for coffee culture in the Queen City. An entire city’s coffee community formed under Not Just Coffee’s wing. Ever-dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in craft and service, Yoder‘s influence and vision has helped pave the way for a multitude of Southeastern coffee professionals.
PHOTOS BY JORDAN BLACK
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE, JUNE 2016
Diana Mnatsakanyan: What inspired you to open your own shop?
James Yoder: Several years ago when my wife, Miracle, and I spent time in Italy, I was introduced to a style of shop that I loved and wanted to replicate: the bustling cafe full of fast-paced baristas cranking out espresso a mile a minute. It inspired us. So it’s sort of been a combination of exposure to different styles of coffee and customer experiences that influenced our atmosphere at Not Just Coffee. At the end of the day though, I love the service side of coffee. Hospitality and hosting guests is one of my biggest passions, and I’m privileged to do that daily through the shop.
DM: How have you seen the Charlotte coffee scene change since Not Just Coffee opened six years ago?
JY: There is just so much more involvement on the part of our customers and coffee enthusiasts. We now have people coming to the shop for a specific coffee or because we have a certain single-origin espresso on bar, something that rarely happened when we first opened. The verbiage has changed tremendously, with many customers becoming more aware of brewing techniques, roasting styles, local and national coffee events, etc. The first Charlotte latte art competition I went to six years ago was a small group of the local coffee veterans- there were maybe eight people there total. In contrast, the last throwdown we hosted at Not Just Coffee had over 150 people attending and more than 40 baristas from several different cities competing! There are so many new faces behind bar, and these young kids keep becoming really kick-ass baristas. There’s just a huge interest in learning more about coffee, and I can see so many people coming together that are interested in taking part in the culture of coffee. Nationwide, this interest is growing and it has been for quite some time- I think that it just took Charlotte a little longer to catch up.
DM: How have you seen the national (and even the international) coffee community change since you began working in specialty coffee?
JY: When I went to New York City, I was amazed at all the great places there were to get coffee. It had definitely changed from previous years. Coffee businesses have evolved so much in the last decade. There’s a whole culture of innovation, style, aesthetic, service, and quality that isn’t comparable to the coffee shops of old. I mean, there are $1,000,000 build-outs for cafes! That certainly doesn’t dictate great coffee, but there’s a much bigger, more obvious investment in coffee shops in general. In the past, that cost would have been unfathomable. New coffee equipment is coming out every month and there’s a plethora of smaller companies developing truly innovative technologies because a market exists for those kinds of things now. It’s really just something that has grown tremendously, and a lot of peoples’ expectations are much higher than they used to be. Also, the conversation about origin and farmers has grown a lot, especially on the customer’s side. I think people in the industry were very aware of that when I started my career in coffee, but I’ve seen that change drastically for my customer base. The questions people ask about the farm or country of origin are much more frequent and specific now than they have been in the past.
DM: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a small business owner? Any advice for other shop-starting hopefuls?
JY: Everyone has an opinion, and as a business owner you have to be able to sift through the ones that are helpful and the ones that will just confuse your vision. Retail coffee is a challenging business that necessitates a lot of volume. There were plenty of times in the beginning where I was working 14-hour days 7 days a week, and wondering how the hell we were going to make it. I could barely afford to have the help I did, and I would run myself completely ragged by the end of the week. When you’re committed to not cutting corners with ingredients and methods, you’re putting yourself out there saying, I’m sticking with this vision and not going to compromise it. In the end that commitment to quality pays off because that is what retains customers. Through the long, challenging days, we found people starting to come from all around to drink our coffee. People went out of their way, sometimes by a long distance, to sit at our bar. I was honored and humbled every time I saw that, and it was a constant source of encouragement. So here’s my advice: Be enthusiastic about your business. If it’s your passion, then get through the rough days and keep fighting to enjoy it. If it becomes a burden, you’ve lost your reason for getting into it in the first place. Find it again. Ignore the haters, and keep pushing towards your vision and our dream.
DM: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
JY: Well, isn’t that the million-dollar question? I definitely see several more Not Just Coffee locations opening up in the future. I’m also scheming another concept that involves coffee, cocktails, and really good food… Just gotta keep hustling!
DM: What do you do when you’re not doing coffee?
JY: I try to travel as much as time and money will allow. Some of my favorite vacations have been to Nashville, New Orleans, and New York. I love good food and beer, so when I’m in Charlotte, Growler’s Pourhouse and the Rhino Market are definitely my go-to spots. I try to stay fit and active, which has been easy thanks to the amazing team at Madabolic, Inc. in the Southend neighborhood of Charlotte. And, of course, I love spending time with my wife/business partner, Miracle, and our three kids.
DM: Who (or what) inspires and pushes you to be better?
JY: My daughter, Erin Destiny, actually works at the shop and is a truly killer barista. She consistently gives the absolute best customer service. That makes me a pretty proud dad. I know I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things I have if Miracle, my wife and business partner, hadn’t worked so incredibly hard to keep the lights on when we were in the early phases of Not Just Coffee. She encouraged me to stick at it even on the days that I felt like throwing in the towel. My boys are awesome and only sometimes pretend to be interested in the shop, but I know they are secretly proud of it (which makes me proud, too). The community that surrounds us here in Charlotte is amazing. How could I not strive to be better with people like that in my life?
DM: Describe your perfect day.
JY: Waking up on a beautiful sunny day and drinking coffee in bed. Taking a drive somewhere, maybe to the mountains, and finishing the day off with a great meal.
DM: If you could snap your fingers and re-appear anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
JY: I’ve traveled a lot but have never been to Iceland. So I would go there to see the beautiful waterfalls and natural scenery. Plus I really love Scandinavian design. Oh, and Sigur Ros.
DM: Tell us one thing that people would be surprised to learn about you.
JY: I was born in a cabin in the snowy mountains of Salzburg, Austria, and my parents didn’t want to wait for my passport so they wrapped me up and smuggled me under my mom’s feet in the car across the border into Italy. I guess that’s the result of having hippie parents. True story.