By James Natsis
Upon initial entry into Westport Village’s The Coffee Zone, one is more prone to catch Craig Bishop shuffling back and forth along the back hallway with a muffin pan in hand or responding to a baker’s timer than pouring a latte for a customer from behind the counter. The guy really likes to create simple treats in his makeshift backroom kitchenette.
Bishop moved to Louisville with his wife, Diana Phillips, from their native Asheville, N.C., area in November of 2015 to open a coffee shop while seeking change from the Asheville scene.
He is often asked why he decided to uproot and move to Louisville, where he had no prior connections. He sums it up in a rather straightforward manner: “An old country saying, at least where I’m from — I just had a wild hair,” he says.
Bishop spent his entire career in the food and beverage industry in Asheville. He did an apprenticeship under a chef and worked in the culinary arts before joining the McDonald’s Corporation in 1984, where he managed a restaurant for almost 20 years.
“For 20 years I drank McDonald’s coffee,” he recounts, looking back at his earlier experience with the beverage. “First thing in the morning my employees had my coffee waiting when I arrived. That’s how much I drank coffee. I didn’t start without it — ever!”
During that period, the coffee world was slowly changing from the standard, bottomless-cup style of coffee to bolder, more flavorful grinds. Bishop was first introduced to Starbucks in 2002 when the company built a café near his McDonald’s, which was across from the entrance of the historical Biltmore Estate.
One of his former employees was managing the shop and invited him over for a cup of coffee. He had heard of Starbucks but had never been to one before.
“I walked in and, ah, this is what I want to do. I take a big whiff and said — this is it,” he says.
Bishop spent the next year or so visiting coffee shops and doing as much research as he could during his free time. He was determined to learn as much as possible about coffee and how to go about opening his own café.
“When in that mode, there’s a lot of adrenaline and excitement thinking about it,” he recalls.
In July 2004, he found a place in Waynesville, N.C., a small town with a population of 14,000 just outside of Asheville. He left his managerial job in August and opened it in October, just two months short of his 20th anniversary with McDonald’s.
The Coffee Zone was born, and Bishop enjoyed a successful tenure serving breakfast and lunch, and catering small events. He employed a staff of nine, and as many as 12 during the busy holiday periods.
In 2010, the business had to abruptly close due to a flood in the area that ruined his store, which was located at the low point of the shopping plaza. Insurance paid part of the losses, but he had to absorb much of the rest. At that point, he worked temporary jobs for nearly two years to generate some immediate income and get back on his feet again.
In 2012, he was contacted by the conference center where he had previously run a smaller version of his Coffee Zone for the center’s sport complex during the summer months. A bookstore chain had just finished its lease and was leaving.
In 2013, he entered into an agreement with the center and opened a café in conjunction with a local bookstore, an arrangement he compared to the Carmichael’s Bookstore/Heine Brothers’ Coffee setup in the Highlands.
Bishop operated the café under another name at the time because of the terms of the agreement. Things went well business-wise, and it was during this time he rekindled a relationship with Phillips, who is now his wife, when she came to work for him.
“I put an ad for a café manager, she answered, and the rest is history,” he says with a beaming smile.
At about this time, Bishop and his wife were ready for a change that would involve relocation to a totally different part of the country. So after studying business conditions, taxes, crime rates and other such factors of a variety of places, the couple created a list of five cities they would visit in hopes of finding a new home.
Louisville was on that list.
They first came here in November of 2014 and liked what they saw. Louisville had the feel of a larger Asheville — a lot of laid-back areas, good food and a thriving coffee scene, craft beer, etc.
“It’s like buying a pair of shoes,” Bishop says. “You just know it when you see it.”
Bishop returned that following February during a time when Louisville had received 8 inches of snow.
“I said to myself, she’s gonna love this,” referring to his wife, who loves snow. “But since we got here, there’s been none.”
He was told to check out Bardstown Road and the Highlands. Although they were first interested in a spot on Frankfort Avenue, they were impressed with the Highlands and soon signed a contract in July 2015. They made their official move to Louisville in November and began building out their café.
They had a lot of work to do to prepare the older, fire-damaged building on Bardstown Road near Grinstead Drive. They finally opened in May 2016, just two months before the opening of HopCat a few doors down. Parking issues created a lot of conflict during construction and afterwards.
In the meantime, Bishop was approached by the then-new-management team from Westport Village that offered him the opportunity to occupy the former Heine Brothers’ location that had been vacant for nearly two years. The couple made the decision to close the Highlands store and to reopen in Westport Village.
The Coffee Zone reopened in its new location on Oct. 10, 2016, and it has been a work in progress ever since. It hasn’t been easy uprooting their business and lives to move to another part of the country. But Bishop is grateful and optimistic.
“We’ve been lucky, because the new landlords have been good to us,” he says.
Bishop takes care of the baking, paperwork and ordering supplies, while Phillips takes care of the day-to-day operations. He enjoys the creative process of owning his own shop and has created four exclusive coffee blends, two of which have been very popular, he says. He also has about 40 baking recipes he rotates throughout the year depending on requests and the popularity of each item.
Bishop has used a roaster in Asheville for many years and continues to use the same vendor for most of his dark and medium roasts. He also uses a roaster from Fort Wayne, Ind., for medium roasts and syrups. He is very complimentary of the local coffee scene and recognizes the fine quality of product available.
However, he also values the working relationships he has established with roasters and others in the coffee business throughout the years, especially his provider in Asheville, which has been in the business since 1998.
“We bring a Southern charm of customer service to the table,” says Bishop as he reflects on his business philosophy. “We try to engage people in conversation. If we’re not too busy, we’ll bring you the drink.”
He also likes to hire people who enjoy talking and holds them to greeting customers as they come and go.
“We are about as mom and pop as you can get,” he says.
The Coffee Zone is located at 1301 Herr Lane in the Westport Village Shopping Center. It’s open from 6:30 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 6:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and 8 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.