The specialty coffee culture in Arkansas has been brewing for some time.
The opening of Onyx Coffee Lab in 2012 in Springdale brought additional attention to the state, and in the last several months, three new independent coffee shops have opened in downtown Little Rock alone.
“We’re really in the thick right now of an awakening to true specialty coffee in Central Arkansas,” says Jon Mitchell, owner of Zetêo Coffee, with locations in Conway and Little Rock. “When I say specialty coffee, I’m not talking about the chain coffee offerings, I’m talking more about what is referred to as Third Wave Coffee. Third Wave Coffee is characterized by a more artisanal and educational approach to coffee sourcing, processing, preparation and delivery. Many of the chain coffee places with the super busy drive-thrus do have an element of specialty coffee quality to them, but they’re really more like a fast-food coffee place.”
Several specialty coffee shops have determined to extend their influence beyond their brick and mortar locations.
Midnight Oil in Searcy, The Coffee Cup in Fort Smith and Zetêo have mobile espresso bars, allowing them to cater to a wide variety of events and individuals throughout Arkansas and beyond.
The coffee carts are comprised of espresso machines and self-contained plumbing and water systems. The baristas bring everything necessary for made-to-order lattes, mochas, cappuccinos and more. All that is required of the customer is an outlet to plug in.
The three shops say wedding receptions, festivals, employee and teacher appreciation events, and birthday and graduation parties are among their most popular requests. Lattes flavored with housemade syrups tend to be the most popular drinks ordered from the mobile espresso bars.
When The Coffee Cup opened its first store in 2007 in Poteau, Okla., specialty coffee had not yet arrived in the River Valley. They started their mobile espresso bar in 2011. “We had curious people and coffee lovers who traveled from and through Poteau to Fort Smith for work, college and shopping who stopped to try us out,” explains Caleb Hobday, co-owner of The Coffee Cup. “Word of mouth about our products and service spread, and got back to us that Fort Smith was ready for quality coffee.” They opened their second store, in Fort Smith, in May 2015, offering locally roasted coffee from the likes of Onyx and Elemental Coffee Roasters.
The mobile espresso bar was a natural extension for their business. “We had the equipment and highly trained baristas with a passion to introduce The Coffee Cup and specialty coffee to as many people as we could reach,” says Hobday. “By bringing The Coffee Cup to events where we could serve people who might not have otherwise ever tried a latte in their life, we were able to introduce specialty coffee to a wide spectrum of people.”
Jon and his wife, Trina Mitchell, who opened their Conway location in November 2015, quickly realized mobile service would be an important addition to their business too. “Trina had attended a wedding, and at the reception they had this great little espresso bar offering,” Jon recalls. She spoke with the husband-and-wife team that ran the coffee bar about how they offered the service and got an idea of what they charged for their bookings. “We had already started our brick and mortar store at this time, but when we got an idea of what the market was for this kind of service and what kind of booking fees the market would support, we realized it was something we really needed to look into doing,” he says.
Though it’s new to the mobile coffee cart scene, Midnight Oil is no stranger to specialty coffee. A Searcy staple for nearly 20 years, education also has long been a priority for Midnight Oil. Jared Davenport began campaigning for the cart as soon as he became manager in fall 2016, because, like Hobday, he saw this as an additional outlet. “A mobile cart is a low-risk investment for a coffee shop and a great way to get your product out the door and in front of more people,” Davenport says.
Figuring out the logistics of operating and managing a mobile service posed the biggest challenge. “Because this particular facet of the coffee industry is so young, there are not many resources to help those trying to merge into it,” he says.
But, they continue to adapt. Midnight Oil also uses its cart as a second point of sale during high-traffic times.
And, they continue moving toward their common goal.
“We are happy to say that specialty coffee has spread across Arkansas,” says Hobday. “More and more people are turning away from large franchises that produce mediocre coffee to appreciate the craft that is coffee, and discovering that coffee is more than just a caffeine boost. The specialty coffee industry can only keep growing, because once you start drinking higher-quality coffee it’s really hard to go back to anything else. It becomes a very basic part of people’s daily routines.”