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'BE PICKY': LESSONS LEARNED

October 27, 2008

At Bjava Coffee & Tea, owner Bj Davis stocks the joint with as many local products as she can find, regularly auditions different roasters, and tries not to sigh when her customers order the spiced macchiato to go-even though she says it's best drunk from an open bowl, for the "aromatics."

Davis is picky when it comes to taste, which is all the more impressive considering that she didn't even drink coffee until she began working part-time in a coffee shop in 1992.

"I couldn't stand it," Davis laughed, relaxing on a couch in her shop at 5510 Lafayette Road. At her part-time job, she started out sipping sweet, heavily flavored coffees, and eventually acquired a discerning taste for black coffee and espresso after becoming a regional judge in the U.S. Barista Championship. "I taught myself to taste the nuances."

Now her daily caffeine includes the products she sells: drip coffee or a cuppa joe from a French press, all brewed in-house. "How else do I know if it's any good?" she asked.

In the last three months, her dedication to finding the best flavors led her to try out a halfdozen roasters and a variety of beans. One recent find, an Ethiopian Sidamo, provides a natural fruit flavor. Davis enjoys watching customer reaction to the unexpected, semi-sweet berry taste.

Another favorite concoction is the honey latte, made with local honey from J.T.'s Bees. Cookies and scones are baked in-house, and Bjava also carries Best Chocolate in Town products. Davis said pastry sales "have soared since we started baking our own. Some days it is hard to keep up."

The one-woman shop also caters to a fair share of regulars, which is crucial to business since Starbucks moved in at the other end of the west-side strip mall. "They didn't have the drive-through when I bought the store, and that has really hurt me," Davis said. Construction projects also rerouted a number of customers away from her place, the former Stanton Coffee, which she bought in September 2006.

"The market's not as big as I'd like," she admitted. "People want sweet sticky drinks like Starbucks has. But once they taste one of our espressos, they see the milk's not scalded beyond all recognition."

Her regulars, she said, tend to be folks who support local businesses and avoid "the evil green monster" across the way at all costs. The shop's steady customer base includes commuters who veer off their path to work, including a few who tell her they stop in especially for the local honey in the honey latte.

Customers regularly praise Davis' dedication to local flavors. And although overall drink sales are down, whole bean sales have remained steady. She declined to share specific sales figures.

Davis, a Purdue University graduate, has been in the coffee business for 15 years. She started out with the locally owned Coffee Zon ("back before downtown was cool," she said), and worked as a barista in her friend's local restaurant, Café @ Ray. She also trained baristas in the art of coffee making, a job she continues to do, and eventually came to work in sales for Stanton Coffee owner Tim Stanton.

Before long, she'd learned much about the business, and also about herself: Outside sales wasn't for her. She'd much rather be recommending flavorful drinks and baked goods to customers in the store. "People trust me and trust my taste," she said. "[Stanton] talked me into buying the business."

Since then, Davis continues to learn about her strengths and weaknesses. She hired out the bookkeeping, and agonizes over raising prices-though she knows it's a necessity.

"I'm not very good at making money," she conceded. "It's really hard for me to take money for what I do, because I really like it. As much trouble and stress as there is in owning a business, I'm still smiling on the way to work."

One customer, a local minister, compared Davis's shop and work to a type of ministry. When Davis hasn't seen her customers in awhile, she worries about them.

Her discerning taste extends beyond the core products, too. The shop's inviting ambiance includes local artists' work available for purchase-which Davis selects to hang on the café's walls. Photography and painting have been exhibited, and Bjava also sells locally made pottery.

A native of Mulberry, Ind., Davis earned her Purdue degree in recreation and leisure services management, a now-defunct major. She worked summer camps for many years, along with a stint as a traveling baby photographer.

Coffee, she said, suits her. Although she's Bjava's only employee, she has several helpers who come in for the occasional hour to help with brewing and baking. Eventually, she'd like to hire a staff, and would love to open a second store downtown. In the meantime, she's part of a movement to bring the focus on taste back to coffee.

"There's a big quality movement now that coffee's been McDonaldized," she said. "You should want to enjoy the flavor of coffee."



-Sarah Layden
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