Making Customers into Lifers: Ashley Patty and Little River Coffee Company
Townsend, Tennessee is a town with four hundred and forty-four people and eight coffee shops. Just outside of town is Great Smoky National Park–it’s a pass-through for many tourists on their way to the great outdoors.
Little River Coffee Company, run by Ashley Patty, is a public roastery open Monday through Saturday. It’s a small space divided in half by a glass window; on one side, Ashley’s 1 kilogram coffee roasters whir, and on the other side, free drip coffee and plush seating invite window-shopping tourists and regulars alike to come in and catch up.
Setting the Scene
Ashley Patty started as a barista in one of the eight Townsend shops, The Artistic Bean, owned and operated by her friend Jeremy Doss. She met Jeremy when she was a homeschool teacher for his kids; when he needed help in his cafe in 2014, she stepped up. Six years later, she went on maternity leave; right after that, Jeremy sold, and she started her own roastery.
To launch Little River Coffee Company, Ashley had to hit the ground running. She started her roastery just months after leaving the Artistic Bean. She started with an 1 kilogram coffee roaster she found in Kentucky. In her five-year plan, she knew she wanted to expand to a second roaster at some point. But within six months, she found her demand calling for a second roaster already. Mill City Roasters helped her get in touch with a reseller, and she knocked the main item off her five-year to-do list.
The other item on her five-year plan is to have a core product on the Little River menu sourced directly. She’s working on that now.
The Little River Coffee Roastery
The two 1 kilogram machines live in the back half of her roastery, on full display for anyone visiting her building. The space, she says, is ideal for her business model, which is completely transparent with the community. People come in and buy their coffee from her directly, and often hang around to watch her roast.
She serves her drip coffee for free all day to welcome tourists in and give her regulars a space to visit. In a town with so few locals and so many coffee shops, it’s important to her to offer a space that’s unique.
Now, her demand has grown so much that she’s facing the decision of getting a third roaster, extending her roasting days, or bringing in more roasting help. Right now, she does have part-time help. Her co-roaster, Wendy Winn, comes and assists her twice a week. The time Wendy dedicates to Little River has become invaluable as Little River Coffee’s subscription sales and retail sales have grown. “I’d hire her every day,” Ashley says.
The Little River Coffee Company Menu
Little River Coffee Company offers seven core products and rotates through a variety of seasonals every year. Ashley also roasts coffees for specific community events, like football season or the Smoky Mountains Firefly Event. “It’s a good community,” she says. She depends on them: “if you’re not in [tune] with the locals, you’ll flop.”
Her menu caters both to the small, permanent population of Townsend as well as the tourists that come through. One of the ways she does that is through her online subscription.
In lieu of a traditional subscription, Ashley sells a monthly subscription called the Explorer’s Club, an experimental monthly box. She searches for little-known farms, usually through social media, and interviews them about their coffee as well as what they’re doing with and for their community.
If it’s a fit, she’ll order the greens directly, roast them, and send them out to her subscribers.
She started the Club seven months ago. Initially, about twenty-five people signed up. The second month, it was up to fifty. Since then, it’s only increased.
In the event the coffee that she ordered isn’t what she was expecting, she reroutes through her importer, Jazzland, run by a mother-daughter team that always has great recommendations. So far she’s been able to serve a new coffee every month and give her subscribers the excitement of finding new coffee as she does. “[My subscribers] are along on the journey with me,” she says.
Since Little River Coffee Company has created a group of regulars–Ashley calls them ”lifers”–it has the customer base to host different unique events to set the roastery apart from its competition. Three times a year, Ashley will host “fancy,” South-American-style cuppings; she’ll charge an entrance fee and get dressed up. This group that comes gets hands-on experience with the roaster, cups their creation, and goes home with a free bag of coffee.
Throughout the year, she hosts other events as well. She’ll invite musicians to play live music, offer coffee and lunch, and even host events like canning or leather classes on Fridays. She’s worked hard to make sure that Little River is a pillar in Townsend that the community can count on for social outings as well as great coffee.
Ashley has Hawaiian farm picked out for the second item on her to-do list (to source a core product directly), which is owned by a woman and her sister. The only caveat is price; the per-pound cost of their coffee is too much to reasonably add to her regular menu.
That’s a challenge she’s found creeping up on her; when she started in 2020, coffee prices were down. Now, costs have risen considerably, and her profit margins aren’t as wide. “I’m not going to complain about it,” she says, following her motto to be cheerful and hard-working.
Instead of worrying, she’s focusing on getting what she can, when she can, like the greens from Panama’s Valley of the Volcanos, which have a short harvest period. That coffee goes into her Appalachian summer blend.
Otherwise, she sticks with her bestseller–the Muir-approved Nicaragua honey wash, a medium roast–and her well-rounded collection of core products, which she loves to listen to as they crack. It’s her favorite part of the roast. And she’ll keep working towards meeting her second goal of landing a direct farm, while also deciding if it’s time to invest in a third roaster and continue scaling up Little River Coffee Roastery.
Bring Little River Coffee Home
If you’re en route to Great Smoky National Park, you can stop in to Little River Coffee Company Monday through Saturday, 8-3 (8-12 on Saturday). Otherwise, you can pick up a bag at the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, or have a taste of the coffee stout Psychotic Anchor at Abridged Beer Co. (Or maybe you’d prefer the Little River IPA at Blackberry Farm Brewery in Maryville?). Little River Coffee is also available in stores in Pigeon Forge, Alcoa, and Sevierville in Tennessee, as well as Robbinsville, North Carolina.
If you’re interested in the Explorer’s Club, August’s roast will come from a small backyard farm run by two women in the Great Lakes of Congo. You can sign up on Little River Coffee Company’s website, or follow their Instagram and Facebook.