Coffee beans at Penny University. Photo by ABOUT the River Valley magazine.
This piece was written in partnership with ABOUT the River Valley magazine and the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources and Community Action. You can view the original article here. We write a feature piece each month for ABOUT the River Valley. Want to subscribe to this magazine? Go here. Your subscription helps support our work!
In January of this year, a new coffee business opened in downtown Russellville with a vision of merging the past with the present. “All my friends are social scientists,” explains Brandon Tucker, co-owner of Penny University Coffee. “We used to talk about social conventions, and we’d talk about how really strange it was that people would have a milk man come and deliver milk,” he explains. In their conversations, he and future business partner Joshua Thomas somewhat jokingly concluded “people don’t want a milk man anymore. They want a coffee man to bring coffee to your doorstep.”
Penny University Coffee, located on South Boulder Avenue in downtown Russellville, is more than just a place to get a cup of coffee. For a weekly subscription you can have a week’s worth of fresh roasted coffee, bottled in reusable blue or green glass jars, delivered straight to your doorstep. At the end of the week customers leave the jars on the front step to be traded for full jars once again. Tucker says the public immediately took to the coffee delivery idea with multiple people signing up the first day the business opened. Today their route includes over thirty customers and is steadily growing. But coffee delivery is just one aspect of their business. Tucker explains that even though they’ve always loved the coffee delivery idea they felt something was missing from the larger business equation. So they decided to fill a regional niche by becoming a coffee micro-roastery.
There are no roasteries within 100 miles of Russellville, explains Tucker. They buy their beans raw and roast them in small batches in house. It took several months of practice to get the roast up to their standards. “Once we had that,” Tucker explains, “we knew we were looking at a complete picture.” Investing in the downtown was of great importance to the entrepreneurs. “We searched downtown, got a little shop, settled in and started roasting and delivering coffee, and we’ve been here ever since,” Tucker says.
Both the coffee delivery service and roastery are only part of what makes Penny University a business outside the mainstream. “We made a promise to ourselves and each other that this business was going to be ethical and clean,” explains Tucker. “We were not going to step on any of our morals or ethics to have a successful business model.”
For Tucker and Thomas this means acquiring their beans from sources that engage in Fair Trade practices and invest money into the communities providing the beans. “The farmers do all the real hard work growing the coffee,” explains Tucker. Purchasing coffee from Fair Trade suppliers, he says, ensures that raw coffee beans are shipped from sources where the workers are paid a living wage. “We get most of our coffee from Guatemala,” he says, “but we get some of our coffee from Tanzania.” In recent years, American consumers have grown increasingly aware of the need for Fair Trade practices in the coffee industry. Coffee purchased without the certified Fair Trade label typically means the farmers and laborers toil under difficult conditions for wages that fall below the poverty level. “So it’s very important, the Fair Trade side of things, so that you’re getting certified authenticity that these people who work so hard every day of their lives actually get to reap the benefits for what they work so hard for.”
During our conversation Tucker speaks of the emerging market for ethical business models and a growing desire among consumers for a more personalized exchange of goods on both the local and international level. “People want to get back to knowing who your farmer is,” he explains. Even if the beans come from thousands of miles of away, the owners of Penny University wants to know who is growing the beans. Working through a company called Cafe Imports they are able to connect across the miles. “We have pictures of our farmers; we get letters from our company and we write letters to them, so we are in contact with our farmers,” he explains. “And I think that’s really, really important.”
Tucker and Thomas also choose to purchase beans that have been grown organically, meaning without the use of chemical additives, preservatives or petroleum-based fertilizers. “If it’s not organic,” Tucker explains, “it’s still fostering a dependence on larger corporations that make petroleum-based products. And almost all of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers are petroleum based.” If it’s an oil-based fertilizer, Tucker explains, it means it’s being shipped in from somewhere else, which isn’t contributing to the local coffee growers’ economy. “So, you know, it’s an economic thing for those people as well as a health thing for us.”
The raw beans may come from thousands of miles away, but the baked goods served in the shop are created right in town. Initially customers could enjoy treats from the ever-popular One Nerd Bakery. But now that Leah Newton, the teenager behind the popular local bakery business, is off to French pastry school, the treats are handcrafted by Dennis of Opal Mae’s, a nearby downtown business. Ultimately Penny University is about more than just food and drink, explains Tucker. On all fronts the business is a conceptual venture, a concept reflected in their moniker.
“It’s a very unique name,” Tucker notes. “It doesn’t roll off the tongue, but it does get stuck in your head.” The inspiration for the name, he says, dates from the culture of 1800s Britain. In those days, he explains, coffee shops were first becoming popular, and popping up on street corners everywhere. “Essentially the way it worked was you paid a penny piece, and it was like a cover charge and coffee was so cheap back then you could have unlimited drinks once you paid your cover charge.” It didn’t take long, says Tucker, “for scholars and professors to fall in love with the idea of the coffee shop.” Soon professors and intellectuals would leave the university during lunch break or come by after hours to the so-called called Penny Universities, giving free lectures on everything from philosophy to literature to politics. These coffee shops were open and accessible to rich and poor alike, and patrons came together for an education and lively discussion.
Drawing inspiration from these coffee houses of Britain, Tucker says Penny University strives to create a space where people are encouraged “to discuss anything they want to discuss” and utilize the shop as a center to engage in “an intellectual change of ideas.” Take their community bookshelf, for example. The top shelves are books for community lending, Tucker explains, and “the bottom three shelves are take one leave one books.” He says the shop welcomes professors to come and talk, and often features local music.
It’s not just the store’s name or the idea behind the coffee delivery service that draws inspiration from past culture. Their locally made roast, the Locke blend, is a nod to the English philosopher and physician John Locke, one of the most famous thinkers of the Enlightenment era. Tucker says he spent a great deal of time studying Locke as part of his political theory classes at Arkansas Tech University. “Locke is famous for saying you have a right to pursue life, liberty and property,” Tucker explains, something that resonated with the business owners. They decided it fitting to refer to their first roast, Tucker says, in a way that pays homage to the “intellectual foundation of our country.”
These days Penny University is open Wednesday through Sunday from 8:00-6:00 pm. But when Tucker and Thomas first started the business they were only open a few hours on the weekend. Both men have backgrounds in economics, and were familiar with the risks to get a business up and running. “We really didn’t want to put ourselves against the wall with debt, and so took absolutely no loans to start this business,” Tucker explains. “We took out no loans to purchase the initial equipment, and we were not willing to take out loans to hire someone to be in the shop.”
Both owners had other jobs and had to keep those jobs to pay the bills. “We just wanted people to understand that we could only be open on the weekends because that’s the only time we were free.” Tucker says people were receptive if a bit annoyed with the initial setup. “We weren’t willing to do that, going into massive debt,” Tucker reiterates. “We thought our dream was worth a little more than that.” It’s paid off, he says. The shop now has regular hours and they have hired an employee. “We are not in any form of debt,” he explains, “and we’re here, and we can be your coffee shop now, no problem.”
Tucker says they may eventually expand the business into a larger location downtown, but for now they love being where they are, and are thankful to be part of the downtown revitalization. “I came to Russellville for college about six years ago,” explains Tucker, a Bentonville native. In his opinion there aren’t enough ATU students who reinvest in the community. “I think Russellville is a perfectly good place to raise a family and enrich your community,” he adds. For Tucker and Thomas, Penny University is a direct way they can encourage greater community reinvestment among younger populations, and support a lively and locally-based downtown business community.