Small Business Spotlight: Cups, Jackson

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Published: July 25,2010

Tags: Cups, Janice Cameron, MBJ SMALL BUSINESS SPOTLIGHT

The first Cups, above, was opened in Jackson in the summer of 1993, right in the heart of Fondren, a community that has since emerged as a retail and restaurant destination for the Capital City.  Photos by STEPHEN McDILL / Mississippi Business Journal

The first Cups, above, was opened in Jackson in the summer of 1993, right in the heart of Fondren, a community that has since emerged as a retail and restaurant destination for the Capital City. Photos by STEPHEN McDILL / Mississippi Business Journal

Espresso Empire

Cups has been a coffee tradition since first shop in Fondren opened in 1993

Janice Cameron has an interesting story to tell from a 1998 visit she and her husband, Dennis, made to Pike Place Market, a Seattle, Wash. historic district overlooking the Puget Sound. One of the stops on their walk through the neighborhood was a little coffee house on Pike Street. Founded in 1971 by two teachers and a writer, the café was named Starbucks after a character in the novel “Moby-Dick.”

Cameron said she was excited to see that the quaint establishment was a far cry from the thousands of stores that have been opened all over the world by the giant coffee chain. “(The first Starbucks) doesn’t have that corporate look,” she said. “It had the feel of a community coffee house.”

Janice Cameron

Janice Cameron

The original Starbucks was not the first coffee house the Cameron family had visited in their many travels. Oftentimes at various overseas destinations, the couple noticed that culture-hungry locals would congregate at the corner coffee bar for fellowship; their steaming beverages fostering an atmosphere that Cameron and her husband found very appealing.

Cameron said her interest in bringing coffee and community together in Jackson began brewing shortly after her move to the city in the early 1990’s. The first Cups was opened on Old Canton Road in Jackson in the summer of 1993, right in the heart of Fondren, a community that has since emerged as a retail and restaurant destination for the capital city. It was the perfect setting for the quirky store. “I’m married to Fondren,” Cameron said.

Art plays a hefty supporting role in the total Cups experience. Managers are expected to set a distinctive tone that is unique to each café while the baristas are encouraged to develop their own signature or seasonal beverages that are then sold to customers. Eamonn Cottrell displays an example of “latte art” at the Fondren café in Jackson.

Art plays a hefty supporting role in the total Cups experience. Managers are expected to set a distinctive tone that is unique to each café while the baristas are encouraged to develop their own signature or seasonal beverages that are then sold to customers. Eamonn Cottrell displays an example of “latte art” at the Fondren café in Jackson.

Customers would be hard-pressed to find a barista at Cups that is older than 30. Cameron said she hires a fair share of students from local colleges, “young and brilliant people” with keen and varied interests but having two things in common: a desire to give back to the community and an understanding that working for her is about more than just getting a paycheck. “We always participate in non-profit activities, and when we hire we let our managers know that’s a part our model. It makes (the hiring process) harder but worth it. Having jobs (for them) makes me excited.”

The Cups business model has spread like wildfire across metro Jackson. Similar cafés were opened in subsequent years in downtown Jackson and in the bedroom communities of Flowood and Clinton. Cameron said a fourth café is scheduled to open on County Line Road in Ridgeland at the end of next month. Six franchises have also been opened in locations in Brandon, Flowood, Ridgeland, Jackson and Magee. The original Fondren café recently doubled in size and continues to bustle 17 years later — a gathering place for bohemian college students, caffeine-deprived hospital workers and chess-playing septuagenarians.

“Coffee has 70 different complexities,” Cameron said. “That’s more complexities than wine.”

The other wonderful thing about the commodity, Cameron explained, is that it goes through more than eight sets of hands during the production process. “First, they plant it,” she said. “Then it’s harvested, dried and sorted, bagged, shipped to the brokers who store it, roasted and then cupped.”

All of Cups’ senior staff help assist their master roaster in the “cupping” of their coffee, a process that is similar to wine tasting and involves five steps: breaking, smelling, slurping, tasting and spitting. “That would make a great T-shirt,” Cameron said, penciling the thought into her “idea book.” Every facet of the aroma, taste and body of the brew is checked and rechecked; every cup is different per country. “Our Guatemalan rain forest blend is the best in the last couple years,” she said.

Equal to her passion for coffee is Cameron’s passion for art and music. In addition to running operations for the company, Cameron enjoys painting watercolors and pastels and listening to a very diverse music collection on her iPod, everything from Beethoven to Lady Gaga. While she encourages her managers and baristas to set the tone of their own cafés, she makes sure that every location has a healthy helping of art and music. Local paintings and photography deck every wall and live music from local artists can be heard every weekend.

“Art fills my soul,” Cameron said.

Cameron admits that people are more selective with how they spend their money due to the economic downturn. The Cups brand also faces daily competition from other bean-based businesses in metro Jackson like Seattle Drip. “We haven’t raised our prices in four years,” Cameron said. “We’ve had our years that we’ve struggled. You have to be realistic, dig in your heals, come up with ideas and endure.” A recent string of Starbucks closures in the metro Jackson area has netted the company a few extra employees. “One of them has told me that this was the best job they had ever had,” she said.

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