Building Up The Ever-Growing ‘Little Brick House’April 24, 2015
Kevin Traube wouldn’t call himself an expert, but when it comes to his business, coffee, church history, and pretty much anything he takes interest in, he really, really knows his stuff.
"If you haven’t done something interesting and different, then you haven’t really created something. You’ve just opened a business."
Coffee is the newest of his interests, but you wouldn’t know it the way he talks intricately about the proper way to roast different beans or independent coffee farms in Nigeria. This particular passion of his has driven a whole new base of customers to his little collective of attractions. And for someone like Kevin, that’s riveting, because Kevin’s real passion stems from people. He seems to find intrigue contagious. And it’s built his little artisan shop into a West Virginia destination all its own.
It started simply with The Little Brick House, a local goods gift shop. It stayed that way for 20 years, but when Tamarack came to town and expanded upon the local craft market idea, Kevin needed a new direction to stay competitive. He’d noticed visitors in town, out and about, looking for something to do. He said the defining moment of the business was his next move, opening Mountain State Miniature Golf course.
“I remember we’d just opened up, and the place was packed,” he said. “There were 70 people, and there are only 30 parking spots. As I was standing on the deck and listening to people laughing and talking and having a good time, it occurred to me that I did this because I thought it would be a good business idea. But it was just a good idea, because it added something to the community.”
The idea for the golf course came from mowing the hillside… which he didn’t really want to keep doing. It seemed to him that the hill was a smaller representation of the West Virginia mountains, so he built the entire concept of the course around West Virginia’s distinguishing features, with holes in homage to the New River Gorge Bridge, native wildlife, winding turnpikes (complete with toll booth obstacles) and more.
It was something entirely new, and tailored to the area. And people loved it. It stays open until midnight in the summer to accommodate the crowds.
“I’ve been doing it for so long, I’ve had folks who had their first date here, and now they bring their kids,” Kevin said.
An ice cream parlor was the next addition to the business, as a tempting post-putt-putt activity for families. But when he first turned his thoughts to a cafe, that aspect of originality was in the back of his mind.
“I knew if I wanted to do it, I wanted it to be in an outside-of-the-box sort of fashion,” he said. “I just didn’t know how to do that right away. If you haven’t done something interesting and different, then you haven’t really created something. You’ve just opened a business.”
That’s key for Kevin— creating. With the golf course, he wanted to set himself apart from Tamarack, and unexpectedly struck gold. With the coffee shop, he couldn’t commit until he found something that really added to the community in the same way. But where to begin? He drank coffee, sure. But he didn’t know that much about it.
"Coffee is a thing people can come together and talk about when they need a topic and just want to enjoy their time together."
So he started studying. That’s his go-to with any new endeavor. From there, he says, the connections draw themselves. Themes emerge, and the details lead you further into what you’re looking for.
He’s learned this from experience. He’s got a bit of an addictive personality, especially when someone imprints their passions on him. After visiting a friend who studied church history, he was so inspired, he looked into it on his own for 3 years, eventually becoming so well-studied, he now teaches classes on it.
“I think it’s the nature of my personality, and my business,” he said. “It’s sort of like, when I talk to a friend who is interested in horses, and they’re really excited, the next thing I know, I’m thinking, ‘Boy, horses are pretty interesting.’ I’m someone who thinks life is pretty interesting. When I get into something, I follow it a good distance.”
As he started reading, he was taken with the concept of 3rd wave coffee shops— those interested in fair trade beans, organic coffee and artisanal roasting. Something unique for the area. He even traveled to Louisville to train for a while with Sunergos Coffee, the 2014 National Champion of the America’s Best Espresso Competition, among other prestigious accolades.
“I spent about 5 hours there,” he said. “I could have spent days. I had never made an espresso drink before. I need to learn sometimes by doing things wrong. I don’t like it; it slows me down. But it’s better for me to mess it up and go back and figure it out.”
He still says he’s no expert, just has “the passion of a recent convert.” But the Chocolate Moose succeeded in being more than just a coffee shop. It is a micro-roastery, giving him more control over the flavor— and more room to experiment.
“When the beans come in, they’re green and hard, and look like little split peas,” he said. “There are innumerable techniques and flavor profiles to work with. We don’t just have high dollar equipment that brews a good cup of coffee, or get it from one company. We’re constantly playing, tweaking, exploring and expanding on our offerings every week.”
Exploring and experimenting with the options, Kevin is continually creating something new. The lineup of coffees changes every week. Sometimes he roasts single-origin beans, and names the coffee after its homeland. Sometimes, he crafts blends, and names them with a nod to West Virginia heritage. There’s one named after Bernard Coppendaffer, the coal baron who used his fortune to erect crosses across the world. Another acknowledges President Lincoln for his recognition of West Virginia as a state in 1863.
“We really celebrate the story and culture of coffee,” Kevin said. “But we’re in West Virginia, and when we can blend those two ideas, it’s sort of like what we do with blending the beans.”
While the drink lineup is ever-changing, he does bring back older blends, too, sometimes improving upon them.
“Black Bear is one that has been very popular with some customers,” he said. “We haven’t had it in 3 weeks, but we always have another dark roast to suggest. Those folks never leave disappointed. And they leave with a new coffee adventure, so to speak.”
Talking to him about each of these flavors, you wouldn’t know it’s a recent hobby of his, or that he’s self-taught. But that’s how he gets to know things, and as far as he’d concerned, there’s no limit to where that curiosity can lead him.
As an example, he points to rocker Jeff “Skunk” Baxter of iconic bands Steely Dan in the 70s and The Doobie Brothers of the 90s. While on tour, he started reading about missile technology, and now he’s a defense consultant and chair of a Congressional Advisory Board on missile defense.
“You have to have a sense of self-awareness,” he said. “ ‘You have to ask yourself, am I doing this in a way I can explain to somebody if they ask?’ If I can answer that question, I know I’m on a good path. I’m not looking to impress anyone with what I’ve read, I just want to be prepared and have a good time talking to people about it.”
Luckily, his customers have proven to be a good sounding board.
“With this kind of coffee shop, we can get a lot of folks in who have a lot of coffee experience,” he said. “It’s better to be in a place where you care about it and can talk to them and understand their passion.”
"I’ve got to keep working toward a standard and quality people will come back for. If I felt too settled, I think the decline would start to set in."
The allure of the cafe extends beyond the coffee itself. Kevin gets to know most of the customers that walk in. He can usually tell you a little about them, and how they spend their time at the shop. He’s got stories about their chats. But he’s also conscious about reading his customers, and keeps his distance when people aren’t open to conversation and company.
“We’ve only been open a few weeks, and we get the most interesting customers,” he said. “Coffee is a thing people can come together and talk about when they need a topic and just want to enjoy their time together.”
With such a rotating pool of people to chat with, he gets a chance to indulge a little in their passions, too. After talking to a customer who designs gravestones, he said he’s begun to see graveyards differently, noticing the headstones and the depth of the artistry in them.
As Kevin follows these grand passions, his business keeps growing. In fact, the coffee shop is just the first phase in a whole new direction, transitioning from the seasonal mini golf course to more year-round attractions.
“Coffee takes the ice cream idea and makes it grow up,” he said. “It pushed me into the the ‘destination’ idea for the business. Ice cream was always subservient to what was going on at the mini golf course, because they go hand-in-hand. The coffee shop is a lot more economically viable than I originally thought. It stands alone.”
There’s already another project to the horizon (literally, as it’s already underway, 35-feet tall and adding to the landscape of the business): an Outside-In Climbing Gym.
“I don’t know anything more about climbing than I did about coffee,” he admitted. But he did have a 20-by-30 piece of unused land, so he decided, “It’s not really that big, but it can go up!”
This time, instead of diving in, Kevin has activated other passionate innovators in the community to help create his vision. Being so close to the New River Gorge’s world-class sandstone cliffs, there are plenty of experienced climbers and enthusiasts who do have the technical skill to make the wall an asset. For the more skilled climbers, the gym will offer a top-notch training facility during the winter. But it will also be a great place for anyone to try the sport for the first time, so the spot will continue to attract the summer tourism crowds.
“It will be built to such a high standard that for climbers, there will be plenty to do to train and keep themselves in shape,” Kevin said. “But it will also be exciting for someone who’s never been more than 3 feet off the ground.”
The first phase of building will be the inside, which will feature climbing, rappelling, bouldering, and a lead wall. The second phase will add more to the outside, so climbers will be able to scale the building to get a bird’s-eye view of Beckley, complete with outdoor decks.
“It’s not a big place, but there are a lot of little details that have been sweated through,” Kevin said. “The people who are designing it have helped the project blossom, working creatively on the nuances and subtleties.”
Tentatively, the indoor area will be complete in May, but Kevin isn’t rushing anyone. Whatever the final product is, he said it will be worth the wait.
Although, don’t expect it to be the last wave this entrepreneur rolls into the community.
“I would love to feel like I could take credit for some master plan, but it’s been a bit surprising to me,” he said. “It’s just the fruit of taking it one step at a time, then looking up and realizing, ‘hey, I think I could get over there.’ I really can’t afford to be too satisfied about it. I’ve got to keep working toward a standard and quality people will come back for. If I felt too settled, I think the decline would start to set in.
“It doesn’t feel like anything has been done. It’s always being done.”