When it comes to coffee in Nashville, it’s seemed for awhile now that those of us on the west side of the river pulled the short straw. Oh, there are some notable locales, but nobody who’s really blown us out of the water – at least with the quality of the coffee itself. (When you get down to Franklin, the choices seem to be largely limited to chains, chains and more chains – and that gets old).
This is relevant because we drink a whole lot of coffee, large, expansive city that we are. We hang out in lots of coffee shops. I interview people in coffee shops, to the point that a couple feel like extended offices to me.
But even the best coffee places around aren’t necessary the places with mind-blowing coffee. Oh, there’s some good coffee, to be sure, and on the East side places like Barista Parlour have made their signature brewing methods a genuine draw – and for good reason. But in terms of locally owned roasters providing better than fair-trade coffee in a place designated a true coffee bar – not a restaurant that serves coffee and 27 other specialty drinks – there hasn’t been much on this side of the world.
When Roast Coffee closed in Crieve Hall earlier this year, that looked to be the end of anything for me on the long drive up Franklin Road into the city – might as well be Starbucks or, heaven forfend, McDonalds. Thank heaven for Roast owner Brad Wood and his regular booth at the Franklin Farmers’ Market, so I could at least continue to buy while the shop was closed.
Now, just a few short weeks ago, Roast has reappeared on the scene – this time as 8th and Roast, a splendid little shop just across from Zanies Comedy Club on 8th Avenue South, just before you get to downtown (yes, plenty of parking in the lot behind the building!).
Lesa Wood, Brad’s wife, is back at it, roasting their beans in the back, while the baristas get your really, really good coffee – whether you want it brewed by them or to brew it yourself at their counter – quickly and efficiently.
The space is not what you’d expect. There’s an attractive wall of raw brick, set with vintage-looking lights of cord from the last known manufacturer of cloth cord in the U.S. “The light sockets are from original molds of 1930s era sockets, but updated to UL standards,” Lesa tells me. The tables are made of reclaimed bowling alley floor – made here, sold to China, then resold to a Nashville bowling alley. When it closed, Roast was there to make use of the intricate wood.
The location itself is pretty special, though you might not have guessed: Once upon a time, round about the Prohibition era, this neighborhood was the last trolley stop outside downtown as you headed toward Franklin. (How times have changed!) Since Lesa has more than a little affection for the 1920s as an era, leaving the walls bare and a sense of the original feel of the space seemed ideal.
The owner had let the building sit vacant for more than two years, looking for the right tenant, and when the Woods and Roast appeared, it provided an opportunity to undo decades of “renovations” and restore the place to some of its original glory – from getting rid of the old drywall to cleaning up the beautiful tin ceilings that had been painted a rather ghastly white. Windows were uncovered and found pieces became furniture as atmosphere was born.
“As we went along through the construction, we started to put together things that we had found around town,” Lesa tells me. “Brad saw the bowling alley lane and that made an immediate impact on the decision to build large community tables rather than typical four tops, which also ties into our community coffee concept. As luck has it, the lanes had a great history to go with them.
“The counter that we have from the Union Bus Station [home of the great Civil Rights sit in back in the ‘60s] is just incredible. We thought it was great to have such a historical piece of Nashville that everyone would have assumed lost – tied deeply to the story of the first Civil Rights sit-in happening on the same counter. But really that is part of the story. Think of the nameless and countless men and women that had gone to war in WWII through Vietnam that had a final meal with friends or family right at that counter. We fell really luck just to have that kind of history to work next to every day.”
As you look around, a host of details have a finer meaning –much of the wood you see is Tennessee walnut, the bathroom doors, even, are reclaimed. It’s all about history, wherever you look – and instead of looking scattered, it all just fits.
As I mentioned earlier, you can just order your coffee at the counter (you can be in and out in 5 minutes if you want to, but if you don’t have to, stay, relax, enjoy the wifi and people watching) and have it handed to you. Or, you can brew your own. I asked Lesa to take me through the steps, over at the former bus cafeteria counter:
“We have the bar set up so you can have any level of participation that you would like,” she says. “Pick one of two coffee in preset grinders: ‘A’ for 12 ounces and ‘B’ for 16 ounces. Then put the coffee in the Kalita Dripper. Fill your kettle from our dedicated water tower. Use about an ounce of water to wet the grounds and watch them bloom (swell and saturate) with water for 30 seconds, then pour the rest of water needed for your size cup over the course of about a minute or so. Enjoy your cup of coffee (our helpful coffee elves take care of all the clean up).” All pretty simple and straight-forward, but don’t be afraid to ask for help the first time.
Worth noting is their iced coffee, because they bottle it, and it’s getting to be a big deal – in spring, you can find it in local Whole Foods and other appealing locales, and it’s starting to spread outside Nashville as well. It’s the off season for iced beverages at the moment, so currently it’s just at Roast, but they’re are already making plans for warmer weather, Whole Foods and farmers’ markets. “We were beginning to ship to Memphis last fall, and we’re hoping to expand the partnership with Whole Foods to offer our coffee in the states surrounding us,” Lesa says.
Meanwhile, if you need something to nosh on, it’s there. Needless to say, Roast is about coffee (more on that in a moment), but sometimes, you just need the baked goods. The sources, likewise, are as high-end and impeccable as the coffee itself: East Nashville’s Café Fundamental delivers pastries and quiches made daily. Claire Meneely of Dozen (one of my all-time favorites) brings savory scones, muffins, and some sweet treats and Wild Muffin provides vegan and gluten free muffins and treats.
And then, of course, the whole deal is you come for the coffee. Brad and Lesa make no secret of the fact that they source the best coffees for themselves – they don’t use a middleman, they don’t blindly trust that the supplier is fair trade or better. And the big deal for them is that they ensure that not only we, the consumers, know about where the coffee comes from, but that the sellers know about us, and where it’s going to. And that, boys and girls, is a big deal.
“Brad and I both come from farming families and we know the dedication needed to run a successful farm, be it a few acres or a large estate,” Lesa tells me. “Traditionally coffee farmers have sold their coffee to larger mills and everything was homogenized together. With the emergence of the specialty coffee market, they have so many more options. Knowing the consumer they are trying to reach can affect how they cultivate their coffee and ultimately the financial compensation they receive. Also having someone like us is committed to buying their crop can give them more freedom to plant more trees and try different varietals of coffee beans.”
You won’t find 417 coffee varieties on the menu daily. Look for two to four (unless you want to buy beans to grind and drink at home). And that’s a good thing.
“I’m actually a single origin girl – in non-coffee geek talk, that means I like to showcase a single farm’s coffee,” says Lesa. “We have two selections on the pour bar and two more that we brew. We rotate coffees at least weekly. We keep a larger selection of whole beans bagged and ready to take home. The one blend that I do is our French Occupation – a blend of three Central/South American coffees that we did on the spur of the moment to fulfill requests for a darker roast. It’s since become one of signature items. Who knew?”
I ask Lesa what she wants you to know before you come in the door? “We are really all about the coffee,” she says definitively. “We are always striving to improve quality and service- but we are not coffee snobs – though that seems to have become part of the ‘coffee shop’ experience. If you want your coffee with two ounces of creams and six sugars, please make it the way you enjoy it. I just want to make the sure the coffee underneath is good enough to stand alone, and we’re not adding all those things to make my coffee drinkable.”
I drove home with a big cup of French Occupation to make me really happy on a recent cold day, right before Christmas. Ron and I had been to shoot the shop, after working on a cookbook for most of the day. It was delicious. Chain coffee, I’m done with you … or at least, I’m done with you when I’m not in Franklin on a non-farmers’ market day.
8th and Roast, 2108A 8th Ave South, Nashville, (615) 730-8074. Find it online here.
Nashville neighborhood: 8th Avenue (Woodland/Waverly) is quickly winning my heart, even though I love my Crieve Hall home.
Dinner: Café Fundamental, especially when Chef Jamie brings me out some of those mussels in butter. I’ll roast coffee for him any day.
Lunch: SloCo gourmet on the go or delivery even, completely appreciate that aesthetic.
Soft drink: Coke with real sugar, aahh
Jeans brand: Shamefully none, but must go visit a new neighbor and see if I can change that.
Signature scent: Fairly sure I always smell like coffee, which actually gets me flirted with a lot.
Gadget: Love, love my GPS after I finally learned to use it. Also developing fondness for the Square wallet app we use at the shop.
Cocktail: I’m a beer girl, loving the new brew from Cool Springs Brewery, that clever boy Derrick used my coffee in one of his brews, so of course, I’m hooked.
Reading: I’m actually reading something just published by my very dear friends Kara and Jeff Oliver about their mission work in Malawi – Our Journey, Called to Malawi.
Listening: Loving the Civil Wars at present. I grew up a lot in Kentucky and the sound resonates.
Favorite shoes: Frye boots if they’re a style that’s U.S.-made. They can make you look like a bad ass even when you want to hide under the bed.