Community, Conversation, and Coffee
When Cindy and Cary Arsaga opened their first coffeehouse in Fayetteville 24 years ago, neither of them drank coffee. And they didn’t know much about the beverage, or running a business.
But they knew what they wanted to create, and coffee was merely the way to get there.
“It was coffee, but it was about community. It was really more about what kind of space can we create, and what can we use as a vehicle that will bring people in. Not a bar, but someplace where everybody can come,” Cindy said. “Coffee was a means to an end,” Cary added.
That first shop, Arsaga’s Espresso Cafe, was located on Block Avenue, upstairs from Hugo’s and next door to Hays and Sanders Bookshop. Cary called it the “perfect first coffee shop,” with hardwood floors and a cherry bar built by Craig Young, a local woodworker. The space was deep and narrow, with closely spaced tables and a long bench in the rear seating area.
Theirs was one of three coffeehouses in town in 1992; Baba Boudans is the other that’s still operating. Their shop was on the crest of the coffeehouse wave, and it offered people a “third space” that wasn’t work or home. The Arsaga family name soon became synonymous with coffee and community gathering spaces, part of the town fabric.
Cary recalls visiting Allegro Coffee Co., in Boulder, Colorado, where they talked about making coffee – not just as a business, but also as a passion. They had him taste various brews and compare differences in the roasted beans. “They were really into coffee, and that’s the first time I think I got into coffee. I got the bug for coffee,” he said.
As a university town, Fayetteville has always been a diverse community. The Arsagas welcome that, and they aimed from the start to attract a broad range of customers and employees.
“That’s the thing about a coffeehouse: Just about every segment of society can afford a cup of coffee. So it’s not going to eliminate a section of the community,” Cary said.
They proceeded to open a business about every two years over the course of the last 24 years, most recently a shop focused simply on coffee and toast. (See page 32.)
Going back to the land
Cary and Cindy arrived in Ozarkansas separately in the back-to-the-land movement in the mid-1970s. She came from Little Rock to Madison County; he came from New Orleans to south Washington County – to land near Winslow that they still have.
They soon both moved to Fayetteville, and Cindy remembers Cary’s “brilliant blue” eyes when he came into Restaurant on the Corner, where she was a server. Cindy was a single parent, caring for 5-year-old Terra while pursuing a nursing degree at the University of Arkansas and working three jobs. Cary washed dishes and did salad prep at the Old Post Office restaurant and, in the early 1980s, taught junior high and high school math in Bentonville.
They married in 1982, and Cary quit teaching to stay home with their newborn daughter, Jacqueline. Then they bought a house in Bentonville, and welcomed another daughter, Ava, in 1985. Cary sold lots and houses for Cooper Communities in Bella Vista, a job that helped support Cindy and their three daughters. But it was unfulfilling, with the majority of his conversations focused on selling something.
The couple often walked and brainstormed about what they wanted to do or could do. Inspiration struck Cary during Winfest, the Winslow music festival, as Washboard Leo played his electric washboard. Wearing Mardi Gras beads and leading others in a “frog stomp” dance, Cary felt liberated and decided his direction.
“From that moment on, I was clearly obsessed with opening up a coffee shop,” Cary said.
Cary traveled the country looking for people already doing this and doing it well. He found a great coffee shop in Lawrence, Kansas, and another in Boulder. The Arsagas wanted to create a community space and realized that a coffeehouse would work well in Fayetteville. And Cary wanted to spend his time having conversations with people, where the coffee sold itself.
Once Terra graduated from Bentonville High School in 1992, they returned to Fayetteville and opened their first coffeehouse.
Evolving and expanding
As he researched coffee shops, Cary preferred places that made him want to hang out, rather than the more antiseptic, retail-focused spaces. So he incorporated certain characteristics, such as close table spacing, in his first shop. As they expanded their locations – both in older, established buildings and in strip malls – they let each space dictate its style and personality.
Kathy Thompson, a local artist, helped with the interior decor of many shops. For Gregg Avenue, they commissioned a community table by the artist Eugene Sargent – a wrought iron frame topped with an array of colorful, patterned tiles. And the Arsagas displayed work by local artists, rotating the shows regularly, in all their shops.
They began with a used espresso machine bought from the Lawrence shop, which had a manual lever to brew the espresso. When it broke the first time, they quickly learned how to service and maintain their own equipment, which they still do.
Cary knew early on that the Starbucks chain of coffee shops was expanding and would eventually land in Northwest Arkansas. Industry articles talked about ways for mom-and-pop shops to survive. In cities with fewer than 100,000 people, the local shop needed to do a good job and have at least four shops to compete with Starbucks.
Cary recalls thinking: “I’d like for people, when they think about Fayetteville, and they think about coffee, to think about Arsaga’s. So that’s exactly why we started doing the other shops in other parts of town. And it worked. We were able to stay in business.”
They opened their Gregg Avenue location in 1995 and the one on Crossover Road in 2000. As local community institutions opened new facilities in the 2000s, Arsaga’s was part of them. The new Washington Regional Medical Center and Fayetteville Public Library and the addition to the university’s law school all were created with an Arsaga’s cafe inside. There is also an Arsaga’s coffee stand at the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market.
Now, with Starbucks in multiple cities across the region, and other coffee shops being established in Fayetteville and other cities, the Arsagas remain focused on providing quality products and interesting places that people gravitate to.
Adding food to the mix
When their five-year lease at their first Block Avenue location wasn’t renewed in 1997, they found a spot just a block north and opened Arsaga’s Block Street Bakery. They had control over the food for the first time and could provide consistent baked goods for their stores. Cary recalls the time-consuming process of making croissants from scratch.
They had learned how to do this as they did everything else – finding good people to mentor them. They discovered a cookbook from Gayle’s Bakery near Santa Cruz, California, and asked if they could visit. “They were so kind to us,” Cindy said. She and Cary spent several days learning baking techniques, and their own shop soon served bialys, muffins, quiche, cookies, and other baked items.
Their three daughters grew up in the business their beans showed up on grocery store shelves and and worked in various roles in their stores. Working at other retailers. Local restaurants also contacted as a family allowed them all to spend much more them about putting the coffee on their menus, and it’s time together, strengthening their relationships.
Early on, Ava remembers labeling bags of coffee beans and sorting two kinds of beans that accidently got dumped together – separating the dark, oily beans from the lighter brown ones. She started washing dishes at 13, and eventually worked her way up to barista.
She learned much about baking and even created her own twist on a classic cookie: Famous Ava’s Little Chocolate Chip Cookies. She added more salt and vanilla than a standard recipe, and the bite-size treats sold three for $1.
Roasting your own
Their shops served Allegro coffees for the first several years of business. About 12 years ago, they switched to roasting their own coffee beans in their warehouse. The coffee world was changing, and it was more important to control the sources of the beans and the roasting methods. “People were starting to understand that you don’t want to dark roast everything,” Cindy said. “Coffee is like wine. You want nuances of whatever particular bean you’re roasting to be able to come forward, and you can kill it by roasting it too dark.”
Many factors can influence the flavor of brewed coffee or espresso: the type of bean, the soil and climate where it’s grown, the farming methods used, the freshness of delivery, and how it’s roasted. Larger companies, such as Starbucks, need larger quantities of beans, and they use blends to ensure flavor consistency. But smaller roasting companies can be more selective with smaller batches.
“That’s the advantage of being a small roaster; you can really get some of the unique coffee,” Cary said.
Cary did the roasting himself for several years – training with the roaster manufacturer, Diedrich – and then trained others. Ava now works closely with their long-time roaster, Braden Bull.
They started selling bags of their own roasted beans at their stores. About six years into roasting, their beans showed up on grocery store shelves and at other retailers. Local restaurants also contacted them about putting the coffee on their menus, and it’s served in spots in Indiana, Hot Springs, and Eureka Springs – and even at the Washington state inn that Ava and her husband used to manage. They limit wholesale retail accounts to maintain a high quality. Apple Blossom Brewing Company uses Arsaga’s beans when aging their Hazy Morning Coffee Stout.
Trying to retire
A few years ago, Cindy and Cary contemplated retirement; they simplified and consolidated, pulling back from the stores that required more time and energy. In 2009, they sold their Crossover and Gregg locations to Andrea and Jon Allen, who soon also opened an Arsaga’s in Springdale under a licensing agreement. The Allens later rebranded the Springdale and Gregg locations as Onyx Coffee Labs, and they sold the Crossover location. Along the way, the Allens began roasting their own coffee beans, and the Arsaga family – and its Fayetteville Coffee Roasters – lost those accounts.
They’d sold Block Street Bakery years before, so, at that point, only had the satellite locations. There was no hub, no standalone presence in downtown, which is the part that most resonates with the family, and a community’s collective memory only goes so far. They decided to revitalize the Arsaga’s name.
They looked at the spot near the corner of Dickson Street and West Avenue that is now The Depot. Years ago, when they wanted to open their shop, they’d considered the old train depot freight building because it was so unusual. But the Bank of Fayetteville, who held the lease then, wouldn’t give them a loan because officials didn’t think a coffee-focused business would be successful.
This time around, they got a loan from Arvest Bank to start the project. They went about double over budget, and ended up with a larger loan from Bank of Fayetteville, who bought their original loan and provided the additional funds.
Before starting this project, though, the couple knew they didn’t have enough energy or hours in the day to do it alone. So, they called on Ava and her husband, Jason Arsaga (who took her last name), to help revive their family business. Ava hadn’t understood what that legacy meant until she left for a while.
“I realized what a network my parents had created – a community surrounding intelligent conversation, and providing service, and being good to people,” Ava said. “The Depot was an attempt to bring a hub– a heart – back and make it have a presence that made sense.”
Ava and Jason left Washington state, where lived for 10 years, and returned to Fayetteville to help with this new venture. The concept was a cafe and creperie, and they prepped recipes and planned to run it like the other shops: from the coffee bar, with just a tiny galley kitchen. For several months, Jason and Ava did a lot of labor: carpentry, painting, digging holes, and installing speakers. Ava reupholstered chair seats using burlap coffee bean sacks.
They stripped the space down to the bare bones, but kept many of the old features, such as the original flooring (2-by-4 boards set on end) and large doors that roll up. They put in unisex bathrooms.
They knew a city trail was coming along the railroad tracks, so they built a massive deck to serve as the cyclists and pedestrians. The other entrance faces the parking lot off West Avenue.
They also tried to call it by a more formal name, but its nickname stuck early on. By the time Joe Alexander hand lettered the entrance windows, it was simply The Depot.
When The Depot held its soft opening, all the food Cindy had prepped vanished in about two hours, and they had to make more. “I couldn’t even imagine that much food,” she said. They closed down for a week, hired a kitchen crew, and then reopened with a new plan.
“We really thought we were opening up a coffee shop that served crepes on the side, but we were really a creperie that served coffee. It became a restaurant right away,” Cary said.
They started by taking all food and drink orders at the bar, but soon moved to full table service. Their customers were patient as they figured everything out, they said.
They still have a regular rotation of artwork on the walls, and live music is a staple inside and on the deck for evening entertainment. This is also their first shop to serve alcohol, to better accommodate those evening customers.
Two years ago, they hired Chef Patrick Lane, who has expanded their menu beyond breakfast items, with sweet and savory crepes, soups, salads, sandwiches, and gourmet hand-cut fries. He still plans to do more with dinner options. Even with a high volume of customers, they try to source ingredients locally as they can. The flavor of fresh produce is the best, Patrick said, and menu items that change with the seasons give customers a reason to keep coming back.
The Depot gets lettuce year-round from Ozark All Seasons, a local hydroponic farm, and peaches, nectarines, and apples seasonally from A&A Orchard. Because Patrick has a reputation for using fresh produce, other local farmers call him when they have blueberries, strawberries, or other items. He also shops the farmers market weekly, picking up items for menu specials, to pickle, or to otherwise preserve. They serve local artisan sausage, rye bread from Apple Blossom Brewing Company, and grits from War Eagle Mill.
Patrick has streamlined the menu, using a few quality Fayetteville continues to ingredients or sauces across several dishes, making the kitchen more efficient. He started making pastrami and curing salmon in house, trying to keep things interesting for him and the kitchen staff. He also added house- made kimchi to the menu – to unexpectedly great customer response.
They made more room for food prep by closing in part of the deck. A staff of 50 to 60 keeps the business open seven days a week. “We never imagined being as busy as we are,” Cindy said.
After The Depot was on its feet, they had another idea for a store. A woman in San Francisco had successfully opened a tiny storefront, just serving toast. That concept stuck with Ava, and she wanted to try it at a downtown building that was being repurposed.
Cary didn’t think it would work, but thought the experiment wouldn’t cost them too much money if it failed. And it was a chance for Ava, general manger of the family business, to see what she, Jason, and the rest of the staff could accomplish at Arsaga’s Church & Center.
“Obviously, I was wrong,” Cary said. “That [shop] is our daughter bringing us up to the 21 st century.”
Still focused on community
Cindy and Cary know they never could have created on their own what they’ve done together and with their daughters and so many others. They gave each other the permission to be adventurous and to figure out challenges as they came, Cindy said. Their own children moved away and came back, and many of their former employees have returned. Some customers who started coming to their shops as children are now employees.
“They’re part of our family. It just grows – those personal relationships – and I wouldn’t want to have anything different,” she said.
Jacqueline works at their warehouse and roastery, and handles payroll and general bookkeeping. She also helps create and produce syrups and sauces for their drinks and works with Ava to develop seasonal menus at Toast. Cary’s sister and brother-in-law, Ava and Maurice Konkle, recently moved here and are part of the business. She is their chief accountant and office manager, while he works with all things technical and their computer systems.
The Arsaga family has purchased a building on South School Avenue, a former pottery studio, which eventually will become whatever they need it to be. Right now, a big need is a production kitchen to relieve the pressures at The Depot’s galley kitchen. Additional plans there include a training room and sample roaster, to teach classes and offer cuppings for their staff and the public. There is also room for a cafe space, where donuts – savory and sweet – could be sold. Those plans are still percolating.
For the past 10 years, Cindy has had an art studio, making time to pursue and develop the art she once studied in college. And Cary decided not to think about opening another business for the next year. Instead, he’s exploring another idea: maybe starting a small sculpture park on the south side of town.
After four decades in Ozarkansas, they clearly sense that Fayetteville continues to transform and remake itself. They’ve been part of that change with their businesses for nearly 25 years.
“If you want to shape the way it evolves, then you’ve got to think of how to create the spaces that it doesn’t have,” Cindy said. And, as they age and pull back a bit out of the business, and leave it to the next generation, they’ll focus more on what they can do at this stage to contribute to the feel of Fayetteville and what it has to offer. “And art is definitely going to be part of that – art and inclusiveness and community,” she said.
Those same concepts they started with will continue as the area evolves. “There’s more here; there’s more to work with,” she said. “And we have more to offer because we’ve learned a lot.” ■
Arsaga’s buys and roasts a variety of coffee beans, including those that are certified organic or fair trade, or are certified by UTZ or Rainforest Alliance – and some that are not certified at all. The coffees in their Farmers Market Blend are always fair trade and organic. Other than those, they buy based on cup quality first. A note about certifications: They are cost prohibitive for many small coffee farmers, so it is not always the best indicator of quality farming practices.