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Cozy caffeination: Java & jazz offers place to get a cuppa in Red Bay

FRANKLIN LIVING— “We just want people to come here, hang out, feel welcome, slow down or meet a new friend. We want it to be a special spot.” That’s what Java & jazz Cafe owner Lara Lee was hoping for when she and husband Kenny opened the cozy coffee shop in downtown Red Bay in fall 2018 – that, and a place to get a good hot cup of joe.

The Lees moved to Red Bay a year ago from their home on the Wisconsin/Illinois state line. Their new home, just north of the city in Pleasant Site, puts them halfway between their daughters and their grandchildren in Oklahoma and South Carolina – a place they found after house hunting all over northwest Alabama. “It’s a very beautiful area, and it’s rural where we live, but we’re close enough to Florence that if we want to go to a ‘big city,’ we can,” Lara explained. “We never thought about Red Bay, but back in the ’50s and ’60s, many people migrated from Red Bay to our little town of Zion (Illinois) for work. Both my husband and I grew up with children whose parents were from Red Bay and Fulton … Our lives are a journey of faith, and we believe the Lord directed us to live right here in Red Bay.”

But even as the Lees were falling in love with their new home, they realized something was missing – something important.

“We’re used to having coffee shops around, and we found there wasn’t one here, and we’d have to drive to Fulton or Russellville to get to a coffee shop,” Lara said. The coffee culture was strong in their area of Wisconsin/Illinois, and Lara said she still wanted a coffee shop and that culture in arm’s reach. “It’s a social gathering place. You go and meet a friend there over a cup of coffee and a doughnut or a pastry, or you would go and have a business meeting or read a book. Topically a coffee shop will lend itself to knowing people are going to stay there for a period of time. It’s not like a restaurant, where you have to turn tables and if people just sit, the waitresses aren’t making any money – so it’s not like a restaurant in that respect.”

Lara has work experience in administration, and from working with a number of small businesses through the years, she learned what it takes to run one, “especially the nitty gritty things people don’t like, like taxes and payroll and finances – all that other stuff that’s not so glamorous.” So armed with her business savvy, her love of coffee and her confidence that the market was ripe – “As I began to talk to people in the community, it was very obvious to me: everybody said ‘I wish Red Bay had a coffee shop’” – she decide to open her small business where folks from Red Bay, across Franklin County and beyond could pop in for a cuppa.

As the wheels on Lara’s plan began to turn, the first thing she needed was a storefront. In perfect timing, she found out the owners of Sno Biz planned to move locations, and she said it seemed like the perfect opportunity. Husband Kenny, however, first met her confidence with uncertainty. “He didn’t think it would happen. We’re new to the community, we’re retired, we don’t have any financials established down here, and we could be a risk to somebody,” Lara said. But as fate or the Lord would have it, “we weren’t; we flew through it, and every single door was wide open.” With all the details falling into place so smoothly, Lara said Kenny came right on board, and the two of them got to work.

They closed on the property Sept. 7 last year and, with long days of hard work, opened Java & jazz Oct. 20.

“We transformed the place. The colors were bright – very bright, yellow and pink and light blue, everything that goes with fun and kids and snow cones,” said Lara. The aesthetic didn’t work for a cozy coffee shop. The shop layout also didn’t work. But after moving some walls and wiring around, plus repainting, Java & jazz began to take shape. “We were under a deadline because I had already contracted some dear friends from up north, professional entertainers who do balloon twisting and face painting, to come down and be here for opening day, so I had to be ready,” Lara said. “It’s pretty remarkable. We give all the glory to God.”

Kenny and Lara were able to do much of the work themselves, between his technical and construction know-how and her interior design skills.

“You have to work with the space. The space is the space,” Lara said. “I wanted it to feel comfortable, cozy, when you walked in – like a respite from the crazy world outside. But I didn’t want it to be like your living room, per se. I wanted it to feel sort of minimalistic, not too cluttered – not crowded but comfortable.” With that in mind, Lara said paint choice was a crucial element. “I wanted something that would be warm but also inviting to men – I wanted them to be comfortable being in here too, and color affects people,” Lara explained. “I wanted people to come in and go, ‘Ahh. This is nice. I want to stay here.’” She painted the top half of the walls a muted blue called “skinny jeans;” the color on the bottom half is “espresso bean.”

Between the paint colors and the décor, Lara said she has received many compliments on the general feel of the shop. “I wanted it to be eclectic. Eclectic is a way to describe me. So I wanted it to be not all the same – not all the same chairs or tables.” Without any backers or investors, she worked within a firm budget. Purchasing all the coffee-making equipment was a must, but some décor items were gifted to her, and some came from her own home, like three comfy chairs. “But I can’t bring anymore or my house won’t have any place to sit,” she joked.

Many of their customers are Tiffin visitors, and Lara said they make it a point to welcome these travelers in to sit, sip a cup of something and chat about their travels. They also make special overtures to military and first responders/police officers, who can come in on Tuesdays for a free cup of coffee or 10 percent off any other coffee item as part of “Black Rifle Coffee Company Day,” when Java & jazz serves this grind from a veteran-owned, veteran-benefiting company.

“My husband is the supreme barista,” said Lara. She and Kenny are both self-taught in the art of coffee-making, both attending, as she put it, the “Youtube School of Barista.” “You have all of these higher-end coffee shops around the world, and they are more than happy to share how to make drinks, how to froth … We would watch and learn and practice, and that’s how we learned.” The shop offers a wide menu, and Lara said they prioritize using local ingredients and brands when possible – like sourcing coffee from My Brother’s Cup Coffee Co., in nearby Fulton, Miss., and using Alabama-based Red Diamond Coffee and Tea.

“We use minimal ingredients. We don’t have any fillers or powders, and we don’t add extra sugar. We just use the coffee and then our syrups and sauces and our milk products,” Lara explained. “Right away we put a water filtration system on our water; it’s highly filtered, so it’s very good water. That’s very important because you have to start with good water. If you don’t have good water, you’re not going to have a good drink.”

In their first few months of business, Lara said Java & jazz has been well received. “Everybody that has come in from the communities, they have all been like, ‘We’re so glad you’re here, and we’ve needed a coffee shop.’ It’s been very favorable.”

The shop welcomes Tiffin travelers and other visitors from near and far, but many Java & jazz fans are from the local area. Red Bay’s Jason Rosenburg said he stopped in one day to do a little work in his role as a content/social media manager for two different companies, and his only regret was that it took him as long as it did to make his first visit. “Everyone was talking about it. I had meant to get in sooner but finally found the time to do, and I’m so glad I did,” Rosenburg said. “The atmosphere is very peaceful. Jazz music playing – it felt like going to a friend’s house and visiting. The owners were so nice and made me feel welcome.” Rosenburg said they struck up a conversation about his upcoming move to Mexico, and the Lee shared about their own travels. “I ordered a caffé mocha white, and it was amazing. Before I left I ordered a mint herbal tea which was also very good.”

Courtney Sparks lives in Golden but loves to stop by Java & jazz for a caffeine fix when she’s in Red Bay. “I just love coffee and was really excited to have a coffee shop in Red Bay,” she said. “I loved it. The owners were so friendly, and the atmosphere was really relaxed. I know if I ever needed a place to go study or work, I could go there.” She praised the Black Rifle and My Brother’s Cup coffee and said she usual orders a regular coffee or whatever the shop is featuring when she stops in. “I’d just really recommend stopping by for anyone that gets a chance!”

Photos by April Warhurst