River City: The Bliss of ‘the Usual'

River City: The Bliss of ‘the Usual'
Jeremy Bragg, co-owner of River City Coffee, adds a little cream to an order.

During the pandemic, among the things many people missed most were those small, everyday interactions with others, “a smile and a friendly wave,” in the words of Jeremy Bragg, co-owner of River City Coffee in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood.

Bragg answers my phone call — he knows my cell number; he knows a lot of cell numbers — with “Hey, Jan. The usual?”

No, Jeremy, not today. I want to talk about your recent expansion. River City, at 2913 Kavanaugh Blvd., grew by a few hundred square feet when real estate firm Engel & Volkers moved a block east on Kavanaugh. Engel & Volkers had just done an extensive remodel of that space, Bragg said, and “we decided to use that opportunity of them relocating.”

“We” refers to Bragg’s wife and River City’s co-owner, Regi Ott, a real estate agent. “The time was a good time to do it, because we didn’t have as much inside traffic,” Bragg said.

The expansion of the coffee shop allowed more seating — vintage velvet sofas and chairs — and provided a room in the back for customers, good for those studying or who want to hold a more private meeting.

With the waning of the pandemic, inside traffic has returned. Although, Bragg noted, customer support and a decision to remain open and move exclusively to curbside service for a time meant that River City Coffee more than survived the health emergency; it thrived.

“The pandemic was actually not that bad for me,” he said. “I actually came out of it very well. I stayed open the whole time. I didn’t ever close. As soon as I was able to let people back in, I did, for inside seating.

“And people were very helpful, wanting me to succeed and stay open, so they were supporting me more, in lots of various ways during that time,” Bragg said, including at least one $100 tip. “It was amazing.”

And when coffee shop giant Starbucks closed shops or limited service because of the pandemic, that, also, provided an opportunity for Braggs’ small, independently operated coffee shop.

“I ended up getting a lot of business from them,” he said. People who drink regular drip coffee can make that at home, Bragg noted. But it’s harder to make espresso-based and iced drinks — “the fancier ones” — at home, and “people that wanted those were going to find somewhere that was open to get it, so I did a lot of large carryout” orders.

Some of those takeout orders were big — big in coffee shop context — orders of $30 and $40.

“I sold a lot of coffee beans too, a lot of whole bean coffee,” he said. “Definitely my sales of that spiked during the pandemic, and I increased my sales both years.”

In addition, Bragg cut the coffee shop’s hours by four hours a day during the pandemic, a change he’d been wanting to make anyway. That meant fewer workers were needed — he employs two full-time and four part-time staff — and actually led to increased profitability. It’s a change that’s now permanent.

As the support for River City Coffee during the pandemic demonstrated, it has a lot of regular customers, people who come in four to six days a week. But it also shows up high on Google searches for best coffee shops in the region, meaning it gets a sizable chunk of new customers, including cross-country travelers.

“Between 25% and 35% of my customers every day are new customers,” Bragg said. “That’s pretty awesome for being off the beaten path.” Just that day, he said, a couple traveling from Houston to Kentucky for the Kentucky Derby drove out of their way to visit River City Coffee.

“And I love it because I love to promote Little Rock,” he said. “I’m very happy to tell people cool places to go.”

River City Coffee started out life decades ago as River City Coffee, Tea & Candy Co. at 2715 Kavanaugh, now the location of Mylo Coffee Co. Bragg, a Washington, D.C., native who grew up in northern Virginia and graduated from Penn State University, came to Little Rock in 2005 and fell in love with the city and Hillcrest.

"I can't imagine myself living anywhere else," he said.

He managed the business at the old location before buying it in 2013 and moving it to its current site, in a red-tile-roofed building that curves behind Leo's Greek Castle, another neighborhood landmark.

Bragg loves his job and his business. “I love doing what I do,” he said. “I’m not trying to make a ton of money. That’s never been my goal,” adding:

“When I wake up every day, I thank God for the fact that this is what I get to do and also that I get to help provide this for other people, to have somewhere to go where they feel welcome and they feel they’re accepted no matter what.”