Robby Grubbs knows one essential reason why his San Antonio-based coffee company has kept expanding — from one cafe, to three, to nine in less than 10 years.
“I don’t sit still very good,” said Grubbs, who with his wife, Neesha Grubbs, opened the first cafe of Local Coffee in 2009. “By not growing it just feels stagnant. The growth in some people’s perception seems rather fast … (but) it still feels pretty organic.”
With business partner and CFO Bill Ellis, Grubbs has launched six cafes in San Antonio under the Local Coffee name. In December, the company’s first Austin location officially opened at 222 West Ave. in the Seaholm District downtown under the name Merit Coffee.
Grubbs told Daily Coffee News that the company is immediately planning at least two more Austin cafes while rebranding all its San Antonio shops as Merit Coffee, which reflects the name of Grubbs’ and Ellis’ roasting company, Merit Roasting Co.
“I was living in Austin when I conceived the idea of Local and Merit,” Grubbs said. “I’m from San Antonio, so it’s full circle for us. We’re super excited.”
Grubbs has claimed that he chose the name Local Coffee in 2008 before “local” was an industry buzzword, despite the fact that “locavore” was an Oxford American Dictionary word of the year in 2007. The name change has seen a few detractors, and some loyal San Antonio fans were sad to lose the “prestigious” name, citing “SA pride.” Still, Merit Coffee will certainly be more search-friendly as the retail footprint expands.
“Austin made sense with the demographic,” Grubbs said of the latest expansion, which took direction from existing cafe successes. “One of our favorite locations is in the old Pearl Brewery. It’s a really successful store for us; it has a ton of daytime traffic. It’s a progressive demographic with a farmers’ market on the weekends.
“It had such great energy that we thought… instead of trying to blanket a city, let’s just look for three or four locations that are most similar to our Pearl location.”
When Local opened, Grubbs sourced roasted coffee exclusively from Cuvee Coffee before eventually becoming one of San Antonio’s first multiroaster shops, serving coffees from the likes of Counter Culture — whom Local still features as a guest roaster — and Intelligentsia.
“We got a lot of pushback on that,” Grubbs said. “Roasters were like, ‘No way, it’s us or that’s it.’ My argument was, ‘Hey, we’re way down in south Texas, you can’t offer us any support.’”
In 2015, Grubbs’ team launched Merit Roasting with consulting help from coffee writer and consultant Scott Rao, among others. They began roasting with a Probat P12, then a second generation Probat 25. By mid-2018, a larger, reconditioned Probat is set to arrive from Germany.
Jamie Isetts, a former trader with InterAmerican Coffee, serves as Merit’s director of green coffee. Her current lineup includes a Karumandi and Giakanja from Kenya, as well as a seasonal “Sugarplum” blend of Ethiopia and Guatemala.
Grubbs said Merit frequently works with Enrique Lopez of Finca Chelin in Mexico. Before the holidays, Isetts released a video introduction of Merit’s holiday collection of “Morgan Geishas,” featuring carbonic maceration of the famed coffee variety.
In the cafes themselves, Local’s coffee program has evolved as the number of shops have grown. In 2010, Grubbs was still into Bodum and Lux French press for batch brew. Later a co-founder of the former Handsome Coffee Roasters in Los Angeles convinced Grubbs of the quality of Fetco brewers with “a well thought out batch plan.”
Even now, cafes that opened earlier in Stone Oak and Alamo Heights have different equipment than the new cafes, which use Modbar units for all pourovers and espresso. The Austin cafes will use Modbar systems, as well.
“Originally I was drawn to Modbar for the aesthetics — it’s beautiful,” Grubbs said. “It also allows a different interaction with our guests. The bar is wide open, so you don’t have this drain tray behind an espresso machine that looks like a bomb went off.”
For Grubbs, Merit’s expansion is part of a sometimes challenging evolution that began when he opened that first cafe. He said Mike McKim, founder of Cuvee Coffee, helped him learn how to engage with customers who wanted a 20-ounce cappuccino or a “strong coffee.”
“I was so scared of those questions,” Grubbs said. “In the city of San Antonio nobody had heard of specialty coffee, it was a completely second-wave city. Mike is the one who said ‘Educate, don’t intimidate.’ It’s something that stuck with me.
“We’ve been able to do it with 100 employees and seven locations,” Grubbs added. “We’ve been able to educate our consumer, our guest, in a way that is non-confrontational. We were giving something to people they didn’t know they wanted.”
Lindsay Christians (@LindsayC608) is a full-time food and arts journalist for The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin. She is the host of a weekly food podcast called The Corner Table.