What started as one mom-and-pop coffee shop in Mount Gilead has evolved into four spaces in different cities where visitors can experience custom coffee, baked goods and community conversation. Veteran journalist Kyle Poplin, 63, and his wife Myra, 60, founded Speckled Paw Coffee to create a sense of community in the Montgomery County town after moving from Michigan to take care of an aging parent.
Now, their community-driven company has added coffee shops in Polkton, Rockingham and Wadesboro. Each shop looks different because of a business model that hinges on partnership with local organizations. For example, the Polkton site is a collaboration with South Piedmont Community College. The downtown Rockingham location is part of the IncSpace business incubator.
One aspect remains the same: Speckled Paw is a place where patrons visit for not only coffee, but news and information about the places they call home.
At the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020, the Poplins’ focus shifted to becoming the local go-to source of information through weekly email newsletters. Kyle’s editorial experience and knack for community journalism became an asset.
The newsletters set the business apart, showing the owners’ affinity for their communities and dedication to actively promoting them in a creative way, he says.
Comments are edited for length and clarity.
What makes Speckled Paw Coffee unique?
We publish two weekly newsletters in communities that have been largely abandoned by traditional media — Mount Gilead and Anson County. These hyperlocal newsletters, with a combined weekly circulation of about 2,400, promote basic democratic engagement which is lost when the traditional media leaves a community. We tell people things like where to vote, where they can volunteer and which festivals are upcoming. We tell them about fellow community members who are making a difference.
Our business model is to open shops in places that corporate coffee shops consider too small to be profitable and collaborate with others to keep our overhead as low as possible. Our partners in Wadesboro are the Anson County Chamber of Commerce, Anson Economic Development Partnership and uptown Wadesboro. We’re in the common area of their building. Our partners like the cachet a coffee shop can bring to their organization, and our company benefits by sharing overhead expenses, social media and outreach efforts with our collaborators. Basically, we seek out and profit from mutually beneficial relationships.
Lastly, we’re so small that we can offer custom coffee. Our baristas ask each customer how their drink tastes and how we might improve it.
What inspired your business model?
Kyle was a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. Together with a partner, we owned and operated a monthly news magazine in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for several years prior to opening our first coffee shop. Through those experiences, we learned a lot about community pride and sense of place. We learned in the magazine business that collaboration is not only possible, it’s required for survival. We found a photographer who took photos for the magazine because it helped promote his studio, and a tech firm that digitized the magazine as a way to learn more about that business and expand to other small publications. We learned that trading goods and services can be just as good as cash and working from home can be more practical than renting office space. Most importantly, we learned how to cut our highest expenses — printing and distribution — by piggybacking with others. Our magazine was a monthly insert in the local version of the New York Times and in the local newspaper. From there, it’s a very small leap to owning coffee shops in shared spaces.
What’s the key benefit of collaboration?
Cost cutting, plus the multiplier effect. At our shops, it’s not just us who want to see more foot traffic, our partners do, too. That means we have a common interest in promoting events in our buildings and in our communities, reaching more people. Collaborations help us expand our footprint with minimal effort.
What is the impact of your newsletter distribution?
We’re able to mix in details about the coffee shop themselves, such as upcoming specials and karaoke nights. We love introducing people to our baristas and bragging about their accomplishments such as awards they’ve won at school as a way to personalize and localize our efforts. If you’re authentic and you can capture that authenticity in weekly newsletters, then they feel different from typical marketing efforts. We sell ads in our Mount Gilead newsletter, which provides a much-needed revenue stream of up to $1,000 a month in our smallest market.
How much capital did it take to start?
Very little, relatively speaking. Our coffee supplier, Cactus Creek Coffee in Aberdeen, has been great about finding and selling us used, high-quality equipment to start our shops. They understand what we’re trying to do and how that might ultimately help them sell more coffee. We keep our overhead, including rent, low because of our collaborations with the owners of the physical spaces.
Why did you choose the coffee business?
The coffee business chose us. We moved to Mount Gilead from Ann Arbor because Myra’s ailing mother lived there and we wanted to be nearby. We quickly saw that Mount Gilead didn’t really have a gathering space. We realized that a comfortable coffee shop could fill that need — just as coffee shops have done in larger towns — and started thinking about a model that would work in a small town.
What is your most popular coffee and treat?
Our most popular coffee is a flavored latte. It’s the drink of the day on our menu board. Our customers seem to like trying new things. As for treats, people love cinnamon buns. In Mount Gilead, ice cream is always the favorite, even in the winter months.
What is the biggest challenge in 2022?
Reestablishing habits. Our area was hit hard by COVID and people got out of the habit of coming to our shops. We’re starting to come back, but it’s been a gradual process. Inflation hasn’t been a picnic either; the cost of inventory has caused us to rethink our menus and how much to charge in communities with limited spendable income. Payroll has risen, too. We’re making a conscious effort to pay our baristas what they’re worth. They proved they were essential during the pandemic and we don’t want to shortchange the lifeblood of our business.
How did your revenue double from August 2021 to August 2022?
We opened a shop in Rockingham, and COVID eased a bit during that time period. But those were still very challenging months.
What do you enjoy when not working?
We close our shop at lunchtime daily and take a walk with our dog, Julia, who has speckled paws and is the inspiration for our company name and logo. The highlight is when we walk by the elementary school and kids on the playground yell ‘Julia!’
What are some future plans for your business?
As long as coffee-shopping remains fun, we plan to keep doing what we’re doing. ■