There isn't a spare seat in the house on an early spring morning at Revelator Coffee‘s Nashville outpost. The front door is cracked, allowing the crisp spring air around the Hillsboro Village neighborhood to flow into the cafe. Drink orders are fired back to a ticket printer on the back counter as baristas pick them up and start brewing. Batch brews are handled by a Curtis Brewer. Pour-overs are made in front of customers at the bar via Chemex and Baratza Forté grinders. A two-group Slayer Espresso machine sits in the back, accompanied by a Mazzer grinder. Drink orders are calmly called out by first name over the hum of laptops and the cafe's soundtrack (Alabama Shakes, at the moment).
Nashville's shop is among a handful opened by Sprudge advertising partners Revelator Coffee in the Southeast over the past year and a half, and has been serving its neighborhood since September 2015. Executive Director of Marketing Meredith Singer said that opening in Nashville was “a goal for year-one retail”.
“It's got deep roots in music, but aside from that, it has a [growing] tech scene,” she says. “People are moving into Nashville at record rates, and there's a great university system. There's just so much going on here—it's definitely a touchstone of culture in the South.”
General Manager Chelsea Kallman is a nine-year veteran Nashville barista, and she enjoys seeing the effects of adding Revelator to Nashville's emerging coffee culture.
“Getting to have a Revelator in Nashville, being someone that's lived here for 10 years now, has been great because it's another coffee shop that has incredible quality, attention to detail, and a really cool space to hang out in,” Kallman says.
As with their other cafes, Revelator places a large amount of trust in its managers to curate the spot, including its local partnerships. Nashville's Dozen Bakery provides croissants, muffins, and other pastries every morning. The food menu includes a hot chicken po' boy from local food truck Funk Seoul Brother. Other food options include an avocado toast and takeaway breakfast items.
“I'm super proud of our food roll-out,” Kallman says. “For me—and it's what Revelator wants too—it's a goal to be associated with restaurants and [be a part of] this food world. Coffee is a beverage, and it should be treated like it belongs in the foodservice industry. The fact that customers can come in and get a really great cup of coffee and really great food to pair with it says a lot.”
The company's rapid ascent in the Southeast has turned heads, and at times ruffled feathers—the company, founded in New Orleans and based in Birmingham, is backed by Roble Partners, a Berkeley, California based venture capital firm. What we called a “Hopeful Southern Takeover” back in 2015 has today normalized into something much more familiar, as Revelator's small chain of coffee bars across the American south have become a daily part of the communities they inhabit. When asked how Revelator balances their almost corporate-level expansion with community ties unique to each cafe, Singer described the latter as the “only thing we think about—we are constantly revising our strategy on it. From a leadership angle, our path of success lies in putting a lot of faith and energy and stock in our teams. We give our managers the authority to go out and do what they need to do by their stores because they are in a much better position to do that. We hire smart, enthusiastic people and let them do their thing.”
Kallman adds, “The biggest part of it is just having a staff that knows the city they're in. It makes a huge difference. Just because we have a headquarters that's outside the city doesn't mean we can't say that we are Nashville as well. That's really important. People take a lot of pride in being from the South, and we do that too in the store.”
Nashville's rising population—and coffee IQ—have sparked interest in a second Music City location. For now, though, Revelator is focusing on three new shops for 2016: second cafes in both Birmingham and Atlanta, as well as one yet to open in Charleston, South Carolina. The company's production and wholesale team is also growing, with green coffee buyer and Director of Coffee Operations Sarah Kluth seeking “relationship-driven” coffees for the company. Kluth's CV makes her uniquely positioned to oversee such growth, having worked previously as a Coffee Trader for Swiss Water and both Director of QC and Director of Coffee for Intelligentsia.
Moving forward, Revelator embraces the challenges of being both one company and several shops in a deceptively varied geographic area.”From a retail angle, the South often gets lumped together as one homogeneous entity,” Singer says. “We spent some time as a high-level brand saying, ‘We're the kind of company representing the South,' but part of that is really paying respect and acknowledging the fact that these communities have their distinct cultures, and that's why we've positioned retail locations across the Southeast and all of these different cities.”
“We like each of our shops to have that unique vibe,” Singer tells me, and that's only right. Nashville is not New Orleans, nor is it Atlanta—the myth of a homogenous American south is dead. “It's a diverse group of people down here,” Singer says, and the folks at Revelator like it that way.
Evan C. Jones is a Sprudge.com contributor based in St. Louis. Read more Evan C. Jones on Sprudge.