September 9, 2015
By Michael A. Calvert
Lucy Bonds first smelled the coffee in Seattle. When she returned to Alabama in 1989, she wanted Birmingham to wake up and smell the coffee, too.
After earning a bachelor’s degree from the University of Alabama in 1983, Lucy moved to the city on Puget Sound and witnessed how relentlessly people caffeinated themselves to battle the depression brought on by endless rain, drizzle, and dreary skies. Even on summer days when they could see Mount Rainier and the Space Needle, their coffee consumption remained constant. Maybe not an addiction, but a compelling habit. Starbucks had begun its meteoric success at Pike Place Market, and the Seattle Coffee Company, independent coffee shops, and even pushcarts proved they could sell coffee at profitable prices.
In 1992, Lucy approached the bank in her hometown of Greensboro, Alabama armed with a business plan for a coffee shop in Birmingham, but it didn’t smell like money to the bankers. She resorted to making and delivering sandwiches and baked goods to businesses in Office Park and on Lakeshore Parkway. She made many friends and earned a living, but she didn’t forget her dream of opening a coffee shop.
Two businessmen she met, Lee Walthall and Coke Matthews, encouraged Lucy to give it a go — if not a shop, then maybe a pushcart. The UAB Medical Center was the obvious market, and the corner of 20th Street and University Boulevard was the prime location. Coke suggested that Lucy call his friend Jimmy Tracy, the proprietor of Tracy’s Cafeteria at that intersection. Lucy summoned her courage, called him, and asked if she could put a cart in front of his restaurant, connect to his electrical power, get water for coffee, and use his restroom. After a few seconds of silence, he simply said OK. Lucy hung up and danced an improvised jig.
A friend from Tuscaloosa, a boat maker by trade, designed and built a splendid wooden cart with copper sheathing and ceramic tile. Operation New Birmingham helped with licenses and permits. On February 9, 1993, Lucy wheeled her cart onto the 20th Street sidewalk. Her first day was unseasonably balmy, a good omen, but cold and rainy days came, too. Sales began slowly, but after an involuntary break for the blizzard of ’93, more and more people became daily customers.
Arris Jebeles often stopped to chat at Lucy’s cart when he took his deposit to Compass Bank from his restaurant across University Boulevard from Tracy’s. One spring day in 1995, Mr. Jebeles confided that the store he owned next door to his restaurant would soon be available. Coffee shops were catching on, and someone seemed to open a new coffee shop every other week. If she didn’t take the space, a competitor might. She took a deep breath and became the proud, but terrified proprietor of Lucy’s Coffee, opening for business in August of 1995.
Lucy dealt with equipment breakdowns, plumbing problems, and the challenges of supervising a small staff. She worked long hours, and business and profit gradually grew. Even better, Lucy loved welcoming customers and making them feel at home.
UAB researchers, faculty, and students exchanged ideas and gossiped over refills. Some silently focused on their books and reports. They drained coffee urns and snapped up poundcake throughout the day. Lucy served sandwiches and soup at lunch and added tables on the sidewalk. Lucy’s Coffee became an institution, a part of the support system of the Medical Center by the time she celebrated her 10th anniversary in 2005.
The following year, a faithful customer took Lucy aside and said sorrowfully, “I hate to to tell you this, Lucy, but Starbucks is moving into the corner next door. They want to capture the UAB market.”
“No, no. Starbucks wouldn’t want that corner. No parking, no drive-through, no weekend business. It’s just not right for them,“ Lucy shook her head. “Nah, not going to happen.” Her customer shrugged and left with his coffee. Others warned her, but she remained skeptical.
The rumor grew like a small, dark cloud that approached from the horizon and then blocked the sun.The announcement stunned Lucy like a thunderclap. How could she compete with the corporate Goliath? Starbucks’ seductive sign would be on the corner between her and most of her customers. Walking past Starbucks to her humble coffee shop would severely test the loyalty of her regular customers. New arrivals at UAB wouldn’t even know Lucy’s was just beyond Starbucks.
After a long night that included several rants and lots of tears, Lucy pulled up her socks the next morning and went to work. She smiled as she assured a stream of sympathetic customers that she was not going anywhere and asked them to keep coming. Each pledge of loyalty made it easier to project optimism despite Starbucks’ daunting threat to the coffee shop she had dreamed of and labored for ten years to build.
Sales dropped, but Lucy cut costs and gave up her day off and the occasional afternoons away from the shop. She struggled but kept going. She could live with less. Starbucks could not. When its corporate sales criteria were not met, Starbucks closed in 2008.
Congratulations gushed from customers for weeks. Lucy didn’t have to force a smile, and she hasn’t stopped smiling, serving her loyal customers, and doing what she loves.
This year Lucy is celebrating her 20th year in business. Lucy made the Medical Center wake up and smell the coffee she first savored in Seattle.