Austin Jeffries’ legs are tired.
Sure, he runs the occasional half marathon for fun, but the culprit these days isn’t his usual jogs. It’s the coffee cart he’s been pedaling around town.
Borough Coffee, owned by Jeffries and his partner Gray Johnston, is Greensboro’s newest coffee venture. Rigged onto a bike, the set-up is pretty simple: a small motor, LED lights, a built-in cooler, an electrical battery, two pour-over stations, a shiny white La Marzocco espresso machine and some scales and grinders. That’s it. But it’s a lot to be pedaling down the street.
“I think the limiting factor that we’re learning is we don’t have a trailer right now, so we’re pretty much biking that thing wherever,” Johnston says, as the two sit on the patio at the Double Oaks Bed and Breakfast.
“Yeah, and that falls in line with our philosophy of being a little bit more sustainable, a little more thoughtful and more community based,” Jeffries says. “But my legs are beat, dude.”
Jeffries, with his trademark backwards cap and unyielding optimism, will likely be recognized by those who frequent Tate Street Coffee, where he worked for the past eight years. More recently, he started working as front-of-house manager for the newly opened downtown wine bar Lewis and Elm.
Earlier this year, Double Oaks owner James Keith reached out to Jeffries about whether Tate Street did on-site coffee events. At the time, the business was just opening back up again and Jeffries didn’t think it was feasible. But a few months went by and he couldn’t shake the idea for a mobile coffee business. That’s when he called Johnston.
The two grew up together in Greensboro, becoming friends at Grimsley High School and staying in touch throughout college and the few years after. When Johnston moved back to town in 2016 after a short stint in the Triangle, the two started brainstorming about businesses they could start together.
“We were just going off about how we love Greensboro and how we should start something to make more people come back here, and the first idea was a hostel,” laughs Johnston.
Eventually the two landed on the idea for a coffee cart because of Jeffries’ background in the industry and Johnston’s love of the craft. After doing some research, they landed on a pre-fab bike by Ferla Bike, based out of Los Angeles, to kick off the business. Despite Greensboro’s size there aren’t that many coffee shops in the city and there are even fewer ones that would be considered specialty coffee shops, they say.
“If you go to any other city, there’s probably a coffee shop in every other neighborhood, and it’s good coffee too,” Johnston says.
Currently, they are sourcing their beans from Black and White Roasters out of Wake Forest. The company, started by two US Barista Champions, is known for high-quality coffee; that’s the kind of culture that Jeffries and Johnston say they want to bring to the city.
“I love all of the coffeeshops here and I think people tend to find their specific coffeeshops because it maximizes what their values are, but what we do feel like is a lack is high quality, artisanal, person to person crafted drinks and, as silly as it might seem, I think we have high hopes that we can deliver that on our bike,” Jeffries says. “Like you might be walking down the sidewalk and just get the best tasting pour over you might find.”
Their menu, which includes drip coffee, espresso drinks, pour-overs and cold brews, is limited because of their tight setup but they plan to eventually do nitro coffee, too.
“When we worry about, are we offering enough what people like? We’re like, we’re on a bike,” Jeffries says. “And that’s our grounding phrase.”
Johnston, who works for the city in the transportation department, says that the attention to detail by Black and White also aligns with their mission to be an ethical business.
“We wanted to do the specialty scene because the coffee tastes better, but also because it feels ethically sourced,” he says. “And coffee is a whole crazy world of unethical behaviors.”
Their mission to be the friendly, neighborhood coffee cart extends to their future goals of expanding the business. Eventually they want to have more carts and even a brick-and-mortar at some point. Right now, the business is operating on Sundays at Double Oaks during brunch. If business increases, they hope to set up at local colleges, festivals or sports events and hire more employees, but only if they can afford to pay at least $15 per hour.
With both of them working full-time jobs, they say that the main goal of the business isn’t about making a profit. It’s more focused on service and making sure they are offering an exceptional product. Starting Borough Coffee during the pandemic gave them both time to reevaluate their priorities and make sure they ran the business the way they envisioned.
“We can be as idealistic as we want to,” Jeffries says. “It’s purely like, What kind of business do we want to run? And the absolute first thing we will sacrifice is profitability.”
For them that means paying more to install solar panels on the roof of the cart and using more expensive compostable cups rather than plastic ones. That also means working to pay future employees a living wage.
The pandemic also helped Johnston take a chance on his lifetime passion of starting a coffee business.
“Everything was just too heavy, so I think this project for me personally has been an opportunity to do something that’s more about joy,” he says. “And it doesn’t have to have super big intentions but there’s this level of openness that we have that we aren’t putting all of this pressure on this. At the end of the day, it’s just another way to meet our community and give them a space to hang and drink good coffee.”
Learn more about Borough Coffee by following them on Instagram at @boroughcoffeegso or by visiting Double Oaks on Sundays for brunch.
Disclosure: This author’s husband, Sam LeBlanc, works for Borough Coffee from time to time.
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