By Crystal Qian, JCamp Live Reporter, and Lillie Martin, JCamp Live Photographer
Hurricane Katrina was the end of the line for many local businesses, but for Fair Grinds coffee shop, it became an opportunity to serve more than just another cup of java.
Just seven years ago, this community watering hole was drowning in three feet of hot, murky water. Robert and Elizabeth Thompson, who owned Fair Grinds until October 2011, returned from being evacuated to Houston to find their shop in ruins. However, dedicated regulars like Elmore Heary, 78, refused to let the place disappear amidst mildew, mold and rot.
Locals helped rebuild the 7th Ward shop, spending eight months clearing debris and renovating. Thompson brewed free coffee; soon, the neighborhood not only revitalized the coffee shop, but also transformed it into a donation center and a community gathering spot.
Today, Fair Grinds (now owned by Wade Rathke) hums with the sound of soft jazz while the sharp scent of coffee fills the store. Longtime regulars compare venturing into the shop to escaping “into another world.”
The non-profit shop gets its beans from Coast Roast in Jackson, Miss. Proceeds from books sold at the store go directly to the New Orleans authors. Even coffee grinds are donated to the local composting sites. Manager Kami Ownbey said the store doesn’t embrace the “super corporate model.”
“We try to be self-sustaining economically,” she said.
Fair Grinds provides a free community center (donations are encouraged) above the store for organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous. Tai Chi, Scrabble, potlucks, concerts and open mic nights frequently take place in the center.
The atmosphere makes the shop a “very comfortable place to be” for a diverse group of customers, said Ownbey.
“It’s a place where you can easily just sit here for hours,” she said. “That’s the feedback I always get.”