Fort Thomas Coffee energizes its community

Fort Thomas is a close-knit community that is proud of its schools and its neighborhoods and provides a comfortable backdrop where newcomers mesh comfortably with families who have called the town of just over 17,000 their home for generations.

However, aside from Highlands High School football games (how Fort Thomas developed gridiron fervor on par with Odessa, Texas or Valdosta, Georgia en route to twenty-three Highlands' state championships is another story), Fort Thomas has lacked a central gathering space. In June 2022, Christine and Justin Smalley opened the doors on such a venue when Fort Thomas Coffee migrated into a larger location at One Highland, a mixed-use development at the corner of Highland and Fort Thomas Avenues, the nexus of local activity.

Like many, Christine and Justin took a circuitous path into entrepreneurship; the journey provided experience and perspective that prepared them for success. Christine (whose maiden name is Fennell, one of the aforementioned multi-generational Fort Thomas families) graduated from Highlands in 1998, and subsequently earned a bachelor’s degree in business from Florida State University. She returned to Northern Kentucky to assume a role in the Fennell family’s construction business.

Justin was born in Hindman, Ky., a small town near Hazard in Eastern Kentucky, and moved with his family to Florence when he started high school. He enlisted in the Air Force and was primarily stationed at Elgin AFB near Fort Walton Beach, FL. Christine and Justin’s parallel paths through the Florida Panhandle eventually intersected when they met attending church in Newport. They married, moved to Cold Spring, and have two children, Kaelan, and Cadence, who will be sixth and eighth-grade students at Highlands Middle School this fall.

Approximately five years ago, however, Christine decided the time had come to transition her career. She prayed and reflected on how to revitalize her career. She worked as a stylist for Cabi, a clothing purveyor which facilitates aspiring entrepreneurial women to start their own businesses but sought an opportunity that would provide an avenue to connect with the community.

Enter Lori and Dave Valentine

The Valentines among other ventures, owned Fort Thomas Coffee, which then occupied a small North Fort Thomas Avenue storefront. They were looking to sell the shop, which they’d opened in 2012. Christine and Justin inquired about buying Fort Thomas Coffee. Christine had some understandable reservations about buying the shop.

“Our first question was, ‘How are we going to make money?’ You have pretty high overhead and have to pay a lot of vendors and employees to provide that $2.50 coffee or $5.25 latte.”

Undeterred, Christine leaned into her passion to provide a community connecting place for those who live, work, or congregate in Fort Thomas. The Smalleys purchased Fort Thomas Coffee in 2019. They put their energy into learning all facets of the coffee business and weaving the shop more deeply into the town’s fabric. To many, coffee is a commodity; relationship building and providing a comfortable atmosphere in an excellent location are key to excelling in a crowded marketplace. They found their stride, and Fort Thomas Coffee’s clientele grew.

Down the block, Greiwe Development was constructing One Highland Avenue and wanted a community-building business as a first-floor commercial tenant. Richard Greiwe, the firm’s CEO, approached the Smalleys about relocating their business into the larger storefront. Original plans to open a revamped Fort Thomas Coffee in the fall of 2020 were waylaid by the pandemic’s devastation on construction schedules and the supply chain.

Even in this challenging backdrop, the Smalleys persevered in providing a connection point amid COVID-19 anxiety and safety precautions. Christine said, “People needed something to provide a sense of normalcy to very disrupted lives. Peoples’ experiences varied from being adversely impacted by the pandemic to being blessed by new opportunities. Whatever they were going through, we wanted to provide a good cup of coffee and a place to connect as much as circumstances allowed.”

This facade provides a welcoming play space for children.The predictable construction bottlenecks occurred at One Highland; Christine said that windows would sometimes arrive two at a time. The Smalleys took advantage of the construction lag to perfect Fort Thomas Coffee’s evolution and created a day/night atmosphere that complements morning joe with a full liquor bar, playhouse area and live-music space.

Finally, Fort Thomas Coffee opened in June 2022 to an enthusiastic reception. An elegant chandelier looms over the bar area, handsome hardwood floors provide a comfortable ambience, and comfortable furniture stands in stark contrast to the often stiff and uninviting amenities at chain shops.

Fort Thomas Coffee’s close intertwining with its community inspired unique branding. The Smalleys partnered with Lucie Rice, a graphic designer from Fort Thomas who now lives in Indianapolis, to design a children’s playmat that features Fort Thomas schools, offices, and other well-loved local landmarks. Other merchandise offerings reflect the shop’s warm, inviting personality.

Fort Thomas Coffee hosted a fundraiser for a Highlands Middle School trip to Cincinnati Zoo. The student duo of Quentin Tomlin and Charlotte Agin, performing as The Angle, played on the FTC stage.Whereas many coffee shops merely tolerate kids as tagalongs for coffee-quaffing parents, the Smalleys eagerly embrace students as customers. The in-shop play space, complete with a homelike façade that allows children their own fun space while harried parents decompress. For the high-school set, Fort Thomas Coffee offers “Frappe-y Hour” from 3:00-4:00pm on weekday afternoons, when students can buy reasonably priced drinks and snacks. On a Saturday evening earlier this month, the shop hosted a fundraiser for a middle-school Cincinnati Zoo trip, which included a performance by a student band called The Angle and beautifully decorated animal-shaped cookies for sale. In June, former Highlands football coach Dale Mueller and popular ex-teacher Chuck Keller will perform as The Chalk Brothers (an aside: do teachers still use chalkboards?), an event sure to attract generations of interested (and possibly bemused) locals.

Fort Thomas Coffee sells memberships that provide access to its Fort Thomas Connect business center and meeting space for home-based workers and entrepreneurs. For independent retailers, the shop markets pop-up space for them to proffer their goods and services, with supporting signage onsite to direct potential customers. As the world of work and the very definitions of jobs and commerce continue to evolve, these forward-thinking offerings are differentiating ways to attract customers through every aspect of their daily lives.

The shop’s devoted customers view the shop as more than a caffeinating transaction. At one large table, a “mom’s club” assembled for their weekly Wednesday morning conclave.

“Fort Thomas Coffee provides a beautiful place for us to catch up and enjoy some together time,” Melissa Henry, a Fort Thomas resident, said. “We’re lucky to have such an inviting place in the middle of town.”

Dan Powell, a Fort Thomas resident, and retired aerospace equipment installer who often travelled abroad for work, likened Fort Thomas Coffee to shops he frequented in Italy. “They provide great food and drink, and it’s such a relaxing and friendly place to watch the world go by,” he said.

You can get coffee anywhere: gas stations, grocery stores, and countless restaurants and coffee shops. The successful coffeehouse doesn’t just sell you a product; it offers a comfortable space, meets you where you are and provides valuable services, and provides a warm and authentic welcome to everyone. Fort Thomas Coffee will celebrate its first anniversary at One Highland next month, and it plans to soon unveil new food and drink offerings, as well as workshops that will help fuel customers’ knowledge of an interest in coffee. What’s certain not to change is the Smalleys’ dedication to cultivating a community hub where all are welcome.

Editor’s note: Steve Aust was a Fort Thomas resident for most of his childhood, and has an appreciation of the ethos of Fort Thomas, aka “The City of Beautiful Homes.”
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Read more articles by Steve Aust.

Steve is a freelance writer and editor, father, and husband who enjoys cooking, exercise, travel, and reading. A native of Fort Thomas who spent his collegiate and early-adulthood years in Georgia, marriage brought him across the river, where he now resides in Oakley.