Cupps coffee shop is surely the first place in Rock Hill to offer organic Graham crackers and java imported from Rwanda. It seems more like a cafe you'd find in Charlotte's trendy NoDa district rather than Cherry Road, a street not known for its cutting-edge cuisine.
But owner Chuck Robinson believes his timing is right. He opened in the former Parrish's Flowerland building last week, hoping to cater to gourmet food lovers and college students who live, work and study next door at Winthrop University.
Many have long clamored for a hip yet laid-back spot where they can walk to hang out.
"I'm not fighting the same battle as somebody coming in opening up a really high-end restaurant," Robinson said. "I've got coffee, beer and sandwiches. That's stuff most people have anyway."
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When Robinson first visited the shop, which closed in 2004, dust and dead flowers littered the floor. Broken glass covered a window shelf. Junk filled the attic.
Two years, extensive repairs and a second mortgage later, the transformation Robinson pictured back then has finally taken shape.
"I walked in and went, 'This is the place,'" he said Wednesday, in between waiting on customers trickling in for an afternoon pick-me-up. "I could almost see what it is now."
Graham crackers are among the many items made with local and regional products. Robinson orders grains and corn meal from Anson Mills in Columbia. Eggs come from Cherry Place Farm on Rock Hill's Oakdale Road. Bacon is delivered from Grateful Growers, an organic farm in Lincoln County, N.C.
Even the coffee cups are local -- they were made by McConnells potter Sandy Singletary.
Catering to college crowd
Robinson, 39, hopes to contribute to Winthrop's quest to cultivate a college-town atmosphere and shed the suitcase school label that has dogged it for years.
"They're trying to get away from that with making the students live on campus," said Keri Todd, editor of The Johnsonian student newspaper. "But that's hard to do if it's already got that reputation. When you do go out at night, people go to Charlotte. They don't stay in Rock Hill."
The concept at Cupps is aimed at changing that. Aside from coffee and wireless Internet service, the shop offers gourmet sandwiches and microbrews such as Highland Gaelic (Asheville, N.C.) and Terrapin (Athens, Ga.). Live music and poetry nights will be organized soon.
The name Cupps refers to coffee tastings known as cuppings, which also will be offered.
A love for coffee
For Robinson, the debut marks the latest twist in a career path best described as unique. He grew up in New Milford, Conn., near where his parents belonged to a farmers co-op and tended to a small apple orchard. After college, he spent 17 years as a computer software programmer.
He also married Julie Thomas, a York native who brought him south and later convinced him that an empty flower shop was the perfect spot to follow his passion for coffee.
A developer talked about buying up the block and putting in a strip mall. Flower shop owner James Parrish's widow, Dolores, told Robinson she wanted no part of that. She sold him the building and the house behind it where he now lives.
Since opening last week, Robinson said he has endured long hours thanks to the unlimited supply of caffeine at his shop. Still, the breakneck pace doesn't feel like a grind to him.
"I've always hated that people think work and play need to be two separate things," he said. "Feeding people, serving great coffee and beer is hard to do, but that doesn't make it work. It feels like play without enough sleep."