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February 4, 2009

The Art of Reinvention

sondra powell coffee shop owner

WAKE-UP CALL Sondra Powell at Jackson's Organic Coffee in Louisville, KY.

Photo Credit: David McClister

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From retail associate to COFFEE SHOP CO-OWNER

EXIT SIGNS: After graduation, I was a sales associate at an upscale French antiques store. I wore little wool suits and did clerical and shop work, but after five years, I realized it wasn't going anywhere. My now-partner Christopher had the idea for a drive-through coffee kiosk, because you can't just grab a cup in Louisville — you have to find parking, walk in, and run into somebody from high school you haven't seen in eight years. I love all things coffee, so we went for it.

GETTING SCHOOLED: I stayed on at the antiques shop for a year while I researched funding and traffic patterns — stuff you'd never think about, like finding a location on the "morning" side of the street, on the right side headed downtown with the commuters. Christopher and I took a course in Idaho on buying and importing beans and learned how to work the equipment. We brought a French press on the drive there and stopped and talked to any roaster that we could find along the way.

THE WHAT-HAVE-I-DONE MOMENT: We bought a used roaster online for half of the 10 grand a brand-new one would have cost. But we did so with a credit-card check with a superhigh interest rate. When we returned from picking it up, we found out we'd been turned down for a personal loan we were counting on.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION: An old gas station came up for rent, so we cleaned it up and painted it orange. We opened Jackson's Organic Coffee at 6 a.m. on a freezing cold day in January, brewed a pot of coffee, and turned on the neon sign, hoping that people would come. Our first customer pulled up: a teacher who said he'd been waiting for us to open. We probably had 20 people that day; now we have around 200. Jackson's Organic Coffee is sold at local markets and Whole Foods, and to some of the city's top restaurants. We're in talks with a brewery to make a coffee stout from it. The Rolling Stones even drank it when they played the first concert ever held at Churchill Downs.

WORD TO THE WISE: A lot of places are closing right now, thanks to the economy, but we like to say that if you can make it right now, you can make it anytime. You have to be scrappy, do everything yourself (I joke I'm the best-dressed delivery person in town, making coffee drops in high heels), and stay positive, because just when you think it couldn't get any more stressful, something breaks.

THE PAYOFF: I wake up around 4:30 a.m. and hit the ground running; in my old life, I wouldn't get home from a night out until then. I used to sit at a desk and take messages — now I remember how hundreds of people take their coffee and their dogs' names. I'm just so proud that people want to buy something we made, and that they're rooting for us. We had bumper stickers with our logo printed, and in the beginning I'd see one and could name which friend's car it was on. Now I'll spot one and say, "I don't even know whose truck that is!"

—as told to Jessica Henderson


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