Jeff Scheafnocker is very much a step-by-step kind of guy. In this way, and probably only in this way, does he bear some similarity to the fictional character of Goldilocks, who approaches one thing at a time and focuses on it in several ways before determining which is best and then moving onto the next.
For half a decade, Scheafnocker’s Three Bears Coffee has been offering Knoxville, Tenn., a variety of soundly sourced and manually roasted coffee, served only via Bunn drip pour-over machines and Toddy-style cold-brew through the window of his hitched “gypsy wagon” coffee trailer. In the coming months, Three Bears will be taking the next step into a brick-and-mortar store — although the program, for now, will hold steady.
“The whole process has been really pragmatic,” Scheafnocker told Daily Coffee News about the growth of his business. “It’s been based very much on just putting one foot in front of the other — ‘Ok, what next? Ok. What next?’ That’s where I am now, these next ‘what nexts.'” Currently, Scheafnocker has his 3-kilo US Roaster machine set up in a space he had licensed as a commercial kitchen at his residence. He’s excited to relocate that roaster to a much more spacious, conventional commercial space about 150 yards down the road. Said Scheafnocker, “My commute is only increasing marginally.”
“It’s not so much that I’m determined to have a ‘coffee shop.’ I need a better space for the roastery, and this seemed like a great opportunity to incorporate what will be more like a tasting room,” said Scheafnocker, who intends to keep the menu and the operation more or less the same throughout the transition, with intent only to expand incrementally only as dictated by the market’s demand. “The notion of Three Bears as a coffee service shop has a lot of potential, but I’m pretty trepidatious about stuff and I’d rather be lead into that business than try to draw interest where it might not currently exist.”
Speculation has never been part of the Three Bears planning model, as every step the business takes is based on certainty and grounded in reality. The name, too, actually has no relation to any fairy tales. On Three Bears’ website, visitors can see a picture of Arthur, Emma and Bud — the trio of beloved family dogs, all now passed, which were the Scheafnockers’ original three bears. “We were local neighborhood dog-walking celebrities for a long time with those guys,” Scheafnocker recalled fondly. “We have a big shepherd named Duke now and I suppose he’s an honorary bear, but he never knew the original trio.”
Scheafnocker describes the neighborhood of the future home of Three Bears Coffee as one that’s not seen much investment in terms of re-development, although it’s not derelict or isolated either, and recently there’s been a rise in attention and activity. A new municipal park is slated to be built in the area and plenty of bicycle traffic already flows through to Knoxville’s nearby “urban wilderness” bike trails. The new commercial building, where Scheafnocker hopes to set up within the coming month or two, will also house a brewery and a restaurant.
Three Bears sources its green coffees from Royal Coffee, both West and New York, as well as a sort of farm-direct import from a cooperative in Nayarit, Mexico. “I hesitate to use that language, because that’s just sort of a lightning rod,” said Scheafnocker, while agreeing that it is essentially a direct transaction with representatives of the growing cooperative. He originally conceived of a wholesale-only business, but quickly recognized that serving the coffee in some form was a requirement, as most people enjoy a taste before buying the beans. Said Scheafnocker, “I do a huge amount of business just in cups of coffee.”
A good number of those cups fly through Three Bears’ mobile stand at the bustling Market Square Farmers Market on Wednesdays and Fridays, where long lines dictate speedy service, ruling out more time-consuming brew methods like manual pourovers or espresso drinks. “Honestly, espresso has never been much of my focus. I know that especially in the current world of coffee that probably sounds like total sacrilege,” said Scheafnocker. “It’s kind of a whole other facet of coffee stuff, which is wonderful, but I don’t find it to be crucial.”
This species of brew-method purism stems back to the years in which the seeds of his interest in coffee first took root, manually brewing coffee for himself in college, then learning the stories behind coffee. Years later, as notions of a business started translating into action, Scheafnocker followed his interests in logical consequence. He traced his favorite coffee back to its origin farms and cooperatives, then started sourcing coffees from similarly conscientious growers and roasting on small consumer-type machines for himself and his friends. The activity evolved up to the 3-kilo US Roasters machine he uses today, and brewing remains a very straightforward activity. “I wasn’t really a coffee shop kind of guy,” he said. “I didn’t spend a lot of time in coffee shops, I didn’t really obsess about milk-based drinks. The bean, the coffee itself, brewed in any number of ways other than espresso was very fascinating to me.”
In the long run, Scheafnocker foresees a time when he may need to upgrade to a bigger a US Roaster machine, as demand from the farmers market and numerous wholesale accounts already seems to support it. Said Scheafnocker, “In the process of this move, I may be finding that I’m busting at the seams a little bit.”
Howard Bryman is the associate editor of Daily Coffee News by Roast Magazine. He is based in Portland, Oregon.