Tucked away in the outskirts of Downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, Foolish Things Coffee Co. is a sanctuary for all things coffee. With a manifesto that highlights the formation of deep, organic relationships, Foolish Things strives to cultivate a long-lasting community while brewing a great cup of coffee using beans from multiple, small-batch roasters. Their hopper includes the likes of Ritual Coffee from San Francisco, Augies Coffee from Redlands, CA, Mariposa Coffee from Norman, OK, and Blueprint Coffee Roasters from Saint Louis, MO.
With “craft coffee” expanding its reach coast to coast, hunting for a great cup coffee is becoming less of a challenge and more of an exercise of loyalty. The lure of today’s coffeeshop is to start with a great product (i.e. not screwing up the coffee) and then it’s everything else that becomes the focal point of a recurring customer base. For founder Justin Carpenter, the approach is no different.
What was life like growing up in Tulsa, OK? Did coffee or food play a big role growing up?
Justin Carpenter: One of my earliest memories is of my father dropping me off at school on his way to work. My father is a man of routine and one of his pillars (then and now) was making a cup of strong black Folgers coffee for the drive in. I remember every day asking if I could have a sip, but it was always too hot for me not to burn myself. Over the course of the morning, we would drive and talk and right as we were pulling into the school, the coffee would have cooled just enough for me to sip a teaspoon worth into my mouth. It was awful, but I wanted to be like pop and if he liked it, then it was probably pretty damn good. It wasn’t until I was out of college that the dependence grew into an appreciation. While coffee had more to do with the people drinking it than it did with the product itself, food was always a very important part of my life. My mother is one of six kids, and her responsibility growing up was cooking for the family. That tradition was held up as I grew up with my mom taking a hard line of “no son of mine will be helpless in the kitchen.” That is where I grew up; most of my early memories were in the kitchen and it was ingrained in me that cooking for others was the most honest expression of hospitality around.
What sparked the interest in opening a coffee shop? Was Tulsa always the preferred choice of location?
I’ve wanted to open a café since I was in high school. Craft coffee, at that time, was still in its infancy on the coasts and coffee hadn’t yet earned its place as legitimate in the culinary arts. At that time, coffee and community were synonymous to me. Back then, the coffee house was a means to an end. Sure some people needed the caffeine fix, but most of the patrons were there to talk or read or play board games.
I’ve always wanted to create places for people to come together and with the influence of my formative years, it was important to bust ass to be able to create and serve the best possible product available. Our mantra is to pursue excellence in craft and hospitality because, in my humble opinion, the former is an expression of the latter. I guess another way we would articulate it is we serve coffee in a way that it blows the socks off the elite, but is accessible to the everyman.
With regard to Tulsa, it’s a city that is experiencing a massive downtown renaissance. Like most mid sized cities, many people left downtown in the 70s and 80s to live life in the suburbs. When this happened, most of the pedestrian commerce went with it and downtowns were almost strictly delegated to daytime offices. In the last 15 or so years there has been an absolute reinvigoration in Tulsa’s downtown. With all the new restaurants, art museums and music venues (both new and iconic) working toward attracting and retaining young talent to downtown, it has transitioned from a place where people are scared to spend time after dark, to the place where the young professionals and creatives spend all their time and hard earned money. When I was younger, I never thought seriously of opening a shop in Tulsa, but as time passed, there wasn’t anywhere else that was even close to an option.
Our mantra is to pursue excellence in craft and hospitality because, in my humble opinion, the former is an expression of the latter.
Although great coffee plays a major factor in the success of a coffee shop, ultimately the community is what will sustain it. Do you feel that Foolish Things has helped cultivate a community in the area? How do you make an establishment a hub for connections to be made?
There are a few things that we are doing to this end. First off, we opened with the very specific goal of being the antagonist to the pretentious coffee shop. We believed, and still believe, that excellent coffee could be served without disdain, and that happiness didn’t have to mean compromised quality. What this did was garner us a fiercely loyal following, which we need as we are a bit on the outskirts of downtown. We are in the process of attracting development to the neighborhood, but for perspective sake, right now there is no retail or restaurants for probably 1/2 of a mile in any direction of the shop. When we opened, the point was to do something bigger than serve coffee. For us to be successful, we had to build a neighborhood, effectively from scratch, and slowly but surely that is what we’re doing. We love Tulsa, and believed that if we staked a claim in a rather neglected part of town and had success, we could start the ball rolling on something pretty cool. After about a year we, along with some entrepreneurs passionate about the development of Tulsa, partnered with the Kauffman Foundation out of KC to host at the shop a weekly educational gathering of entrepreneurs called 1 Million Cups. Since the success of this program in Tulsa, we have been given permission to manage a few vacant buildings in the neighborhood to develop Tulsa’s first Startup Village. We are very community oriented and want to leverage every asset at our disposal to be a benefit to the neighborhood and to downtown.
What’s the idea behind the name Foolish Things?
So here’s our manifesto:
We are lovers of fine coffee; it is our hope that this simple café will be a means through which you engage humanity personally and corporately. It is conversation and relationship that distinguish civilized humanity from animals and barbarians. Although humans have never been more easily connected, we continue to drift further from our ability to create deep organic relationships. We carry synthetic worlds in our pockets, specifically tailored to our individual preferences and desires. We engage those worlds at our will, ignoring who and what is around us. In this age of digits and dollars, screens and speed, ads and efficiency, we seek to introduce something radical. Rest. Reprieve. Renewal. Join us as we stop to brew, sit, sip, and savor. We challenge you to be agents of change, to help recover that which distinguishes us. Some call it foolish. We know it is.
We want to serve the best possible product, so that people might stop what they are doing, fully engage the product in front of them, and if we’re lucky, look up long enough to engage the person sitting across the table from them. The name Foolish Things comes from the fact that we seek an incredibly lofty goal with the foolish means of a cup of coffee. We also named it that to keep ourselves grounded. With goals like that it would be easy to become the lofty idealists, but fundamentally we are a group of people that like having a good time, and want to share it with everyone.
Which coffee roasters do you work with? What do you look for?
Right now, we cycle through:
- Mariposa out of Norman OK
- Blueprint out of STL
- Onyx out of Springdale, AR
- Augies out of Redlands
- Ritual out of San Francisco
- Topeca out of Tulsa, OK
When looking for roasters, first we look for quality. Beyond that we look to find those diamonds in the rough. There are so many great roasters out there, but most get overshadowed by the heavyweights (Stumptown, Intelligentsia, Bluebottle, etc.). What we want to do is showcase those folks that are doing the right thing the right way and expose the Tulsa market to coffees and roasters they’ve never had before.
Oak aged cold brew… walk us through the idea and process behind it.
Rightly or wrongly, there is a lot of talk about coffee following in the footsteps of the wine industry specifically with regard to terroir, flavor complexity, etc. Craft coffee is in its infancy and for the bulk of its history in America, coffee was a compliment to orange juice and a bowl of cheerios. When we opened we knew for people to appreciate what we were serving, they had to have a context for it. For that reason, we make all our syrups in house, we serve our iced drinks in double old fashioned glasses and serve our pour over coffee (we don’t have a batch brewer in the shop, everything is manual brewed), in a mug and a wine decanter. We wanted a service that was closer to a craft cocktail lounge than to the typical local coffee shop. As I continued to study craft cocktails and borrow things from that industry, I looked at a common theme in wine and spirits and that was oak aging and thought, why not give it a shot. Thus, the oak aged cold brew was born! As far as we know, no one else in the country is doing it, which is kind of fun too.
As an entrepreneur, you’re often faced with a roller coaster of emotions and challenges. Looking back, what’s one thing you would have done differently and what’s one thing that you wouldn’t change or compromise?
One of the big changes would have been to worry less and enjoy the journey. The first year the shop was open was tough; we’re in a neighborhood that people don’t spend time in (outside of driving through on their way to somewhere else) and there is very little foot traffic. Every month we had more and more customers coming in, but it was stressful nonetheless. After about a year we started breaking even and have been growing steadily ever since. I know it would have taken a fortuneteller to know whether or not we were going to make it, but I do wish I would have enjoyed the blessing of opening my own shop for more of the first year. I never thought I would be working this much, but at the same time, I have never felt more fulfilled. We have an amazing staff that takes a lot of ownership of this place and it really shines through.
The one thing I’m glad we stuck to our guns on was brewing all our coffee by hand. While it takes longer, and even though batch brewers are closing the gap on quality, the show of hand brewing coffee creates space for a dialog about coffee that otherwise would be impossible to have. Those two to three minutes of dedicated brew time are all we need to articulate how this coffee (and brew method), are so different than the first or second wave approach to coffee. It gives us opportunity to connect and tell stories multiple times a day.
What’s next on the horizon?
I think the biggest project is rehabbing the buildings for the startup village. Neighborhood development is a huge part of what we’re all about and so that is where most of my extra energy is going right now. Beyond that, I’ve got a couple things rolling around. When we opened two years ago, I was 24 so I’ve just barely scratched the surface of “beginning” a career. Coffee as a means for neighborhood revitalization doesn’t sound too shabby as a vocation model though…
Foolish Things Coffee
1001 S. Main St.
Tulsa, OK 74119