Coffee and colleges go hand in hand, offering a place to gather for comfort, conversation, and community. Oh, yes—for coffee and studying too.
A plaque on the wall in the Fuzzy Duck Coffee Shop in Morehead lists the names of a dozen or so doctoral students who have used the coffee shop as their office, study, and temporary home while writing their dissertations.
“We call it getting their ‘Duck-torate.’ We’ve supplied them with lots of caffeine, and they’ve supported us financially,” says owner Marge Thomas.
Coffee and the college experience go hand in hand, and Kentucky college students frequent their favorite cafés for that jolt of java as they cram for upcoming tests.
Whether it’s Common Grounds near the University of Kentucky, Fuzzy Duck Coffee Shop at Morehead State, or 5th & Main Coffees near Murray State University, these coffeehouses have one thing in common—they’re places where students can study in solitude, write a paper, or join in a conversation or a game of chess to blow off academic pressure.
People have long gathered in coffeehouses for comfort, conversation, and community. In colonial America, coffeehouses were often the political and commercial hot spots, but in the late 1970s, the Old World coffeehouses evolved into the more urban café experience largely ushered in by a Seattle-based company called Starbucks. While Starbucks appears poised for world domination, locally owned, independent coffee shops still have a home in most college towns in Kentucky.
Connected to CoffeeTree Books at the end of a strip mall near campus, the Fuzzy Duck Coffee Shop in Morehead is a prime example of a multipurpose meeting place for a wide range of people.
During a typical day, the 7 a.m. crowd of professors, teachers, and local business people shows up ready for morning coffee. By midmorning, young moms and their toddlers gather for play dates, and a group of retired businessmen, along with retired professors and administrators from MSU, congregate to gab about politics or the weather. At noon, the lunch crowd arrives—local professionals and university staff. When the public school dismisses for the day, middle- and high-schoolers hit the door, looking for an afternoon respite of Jones sodas or hot chocolates. And from the evening on, college kids can be found studying feverishly or catching up on e-mail on their laptops.
Dan and Marge Thomas did not intend to create an institution of higher learning when they opened their coffee shop in 1994.
“This was supposed to be retirement,” says Dan of his coffee adventure. In 1993, he retired from Morehead State University as a professor in the College of Education. The Thomases took a tour of coffee shops in the northeastern United States to get ideas. They settled on the unique and memorable name “Fuzzy Duck,” which was once the name of a bar in Jackson, Kentucky, and they opened the doors on October 1, 1994.
“A professor in the English department from California did a spot on the university’s public radio station about us, and that really started things,” Marge says.
The Thomases gradually added 50 whole-bean coffee varieties in bulk, plus 75 varieties of tea, morning pastries, and a full lunch menu. They also added employees. They now employ 25 part-time college students and young moms. At one time, the Thomases had four people with Ph.D.s working for them. Their son Stephen designed a t-shirt for the employees with the logo “Fuzzy Duck Counter Intelligence.”
But one thing hasn’t changed much—the cost of a good cup of coffee. They’ve raised their prices only two times in 14 years.
At 5th & Main Coffees in Murray, they hope to build their business from nearby Murray State University. Founders Mark and Karen Welch opened their nonprofit coffee shop in 2005, offering free Wi-Fi and three different brews a day, plus a menu full of specialty drinks including cappuccinos, lattes, blended teas, and smoothies.
Less than a mile away from Murray State, 5th & Main Coffees is managed by their son, Luke Welch. Mark and Karen are both ordained ministers who work closely with Murray State campus ministries. They knew there was a great untapped market in the coffee business with college students who often come to Murray from larger, urban areas. “It took Murray a few years to catch up with the coffee craze,” Karen says.
Situated on the northwest corner of a quaint town square around the Calloway County Court House, 5th & Main Coffees is located in the below-street-level floor of the New Life Bookstore. The 120-year-old building has housed everything from a blacksmith, butcher shop, department store, and bank. The vintage light posts, wrought-iron benches, hardwood floors, and beaten-tin ceilings give the shop a sense of nostalgia and ambiance.
The Welches’ goal is affordability and quality. “We wanted people to come in here and have a good cup of coffee without feeling like they’re being gouged,” says Karen. Luke often hosts tea and coffee tastings for the community. The shop currently carries more than 30 different whole-bean coffees, as well as The Republic of Tea brand tea. “We wanted the best of the best, and we wanted people to enjoy the atmosphere,” Luke says.
Besides the beautiful architecture, great coffee, and the free Wi-Fi, the biggest draw at 5th & Main is Duncan, a Great Dane who supervises everything. Standing 32 inches at the shoulders and weighing 155 pounds, Duncan is a store fixture. He recently celebrated his 10th birthday with a store party. He even has a whole-bean coffee—Dog Tracks—named especially for him.
All original coffee drinks at 5th & Main start out as a “Duncan’s Special.” If they catch on, they’re given names of their own and added to the menu. Their two best-selling coffees both started out as original Duncan’s Specials.
Common Grounds near the University of Kentucky is another campus café spot housed in a unique landmark building. Established in 1992 in a former grocery building, Common Grounds is the archetypal college coffeehouse with clutches of students sitting in overstuffed chairs, chatting or buried in a good book.
“Our regulars are our celebrities,” says owner Jim Davis. Black and white photographs of regulars hang on the warm gold and red walls. Every two months, Jim also hangs a new installation of local artwork.
When Jim Davis and his wife, Michelle, bought the coffee shop in 2003, there had been 10 different owners in 10 years. Changes they made affected both the environment and the clientele. “I wanted to create an atmosphere that reflected the quintessential coffeehouse—good coffee, knowledgeable baristas, and consistent service,” Jim says.
Two weeks after Jim and Michele bought the shop, they introduced an open mic night, an opportunity for people to share freestyle poetry and acoustic music. Now, Common Grounds is packed every Monday night as the open mic draws large crowds. On Friday and Saturday nights, one can also enjoy free music, ranging from jazz and blues to bluegrass and folk.
They own two other Common Grounds shops, one in Nicholasville, 10 miles from Asbury College, and another in Danville near Centre College.
While Fuzzy Duck, 5th & Main, and Common Grounds may have many college-age customers, the coffee shops are not just student hangouts. A good coffee shop can be a nexus for all kinds of people who wouldn’t otherwise cross paths. Young and old, business people and academics meet friends and relax. And there’s no better conversation than one held over a steaming cup of quality-brewed coffee.
VISIT AND STAY AWHILE
343 E. High Street, Lexington
Best-selling drink? Turtle Mocha
5th & Main Coffees
100 S. 5th Street, Murray
Best-selling drinks? Apple Caramel Kick and Turtle Mocha
Fuzzy Duck Coffee Shop
240 Morehead Plaza, Morehead
Best-selling drink? Caramel Mocha Joe
I'LL HAVE A...
Many people who aren’t familiar with coffeehouse culture may be intimidated by the wide variety of drinks available at coffee shops. While drinks vary slightly with shops and geography, here are some general terms related to popular espresso drinks:
• Espresso: A concentrated form of coffee created by forcing water through tightly packed, finely ground coffee. Typically drunk in “shots” in a small cup or added to steamed milk to make a cappuccino or latte.
• Latte: Made with steamed milk and espresso. Syrup or mocha may be added for flavor. Caramel and vanilla lattes are very popular in most coffee shops.
• Cappuccino: Made with steamed milk, espresso, and foam (the froth that results from steaming milk). A good cappuccino is light to carry. Many people enjoy mocha or syrups in their cappuccino for added sweetness or flavor.
• Americano: Espresso and hot water, typically using equal parts. The more shots of espresso you add, the stronger the flavor.
• Red eye: A cup of drip coffee with a single shot of espresso in it. This drink appears under different names. For example, the Fuzzy Duck lists this drink as “a shot in the dark.”
• Black eye: A cup of drip coffee with two shots of espresso.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: FROM COFFEE TREE TO YOUR CUP
To learn about the long journey your coffee “cherries” take to get from a coffee tree to a coffeehouse, go to coffee culture.