Virginia Handcrafted: Erik and Sean Kopack and KOBROS COFFEE
Erik and Sean Kopack are identical twins co-running KOBROS COFFEE, a coffee shop in Norfolk, Virginia. They roast in a warehouse space a few blocks down from the cafe, using their MCR-3, 3 kilogram roaster to support their cafe and keep their restaurant partners in good coffee.
Setting the Scene
Both the Kopack brothers served in the military. Their family isn’t a military family, but the brothers used their respective branches–Erik the Navy and Sean the Air Force–to leave their hometown of Orlando, Florida.
For Sean, the barhopping culture he saw many of his compatriots partaking in wasn’t his favorite way of being social. Instead, he would seek out coffee shops and roasteries at their various destinations for a quieter vibe when his friends went out.
Their work took them all over the world. Eventually, Sean ended up landing in the Bay Area, and Erik landed in Virginia.
Every time Erik visited Sean in the Bay Area, they both noticed the flourishing specialty coffee scene there. In Orlando-adjacent Winter Park, Florida, there’s one specialty coffee shop: Austin’s. It’s a hole in the wall, really, Erik says, but still beloved by the community. Both Sean and Erik spent a lot of time there as teenagers.
They began thinking of ways they might expand that coffee scene in Norfolk, Virginia, where Erik ended up.
The opportunity came when one of Erik’s close friends, the owner of restaurant Toast, pointed them towards an open retail space. It wasn’t much–a 500sq ft auto garage–but it was enough. The brothers threw everything they had into it, investing in two La Marzocco Linea espresso machines and grinders and starting what they thought would be a small pourover bar.
The Way Up
For the Kopacks, the coffee shop came before the roastery.
The cafe KOBROS COFFEE opened in March of 2020, one week before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the town of Norfolk, Virginia.
Initially, the shop was only open on weekends. They didn’t have much to work with. “We didn’t even have running water,” Sean says, laughing. Still, Norfolk responded to their idea, and soon they’d outgrown the tiny closet-cafe. At first they ordered coffee from award-winning, local roasters, but they found a steep price tag for the quality.
In response, they decided to start roasting their own coffee in October of 2021, using an MCR-3 as their machine of choice. Their timing was good: the price of greens was low, allowing them the room they needed to train on the machine and create the roast profiles that would replace their previous cup-of-excellence roasts.
They moved from their initial space in May of 2021, and KOBROS continued to grow. Compared to the bad days in the old shop, even the worst days here were good days.
The bulk of the cafe work split between the two brothers and four other employees, including James Turner, who worked for Crema in Nashville before joining the Kopacks on their wild KOBROS journey. And he was instrumental in helping the cafe expand into roasting. “He cooled our nerves,” Sean says; even as a flying aircraft mechanic, he was still nervous to use the roaster initially.
But they all faced the learning curve and came out the other side with high-quality roasts to include in their coffee shop menu and to sell retail, saving enough money to redirect into other future plans for the cafe.
Nowadays, James does most of the roasting while Sean packages their retail bags and grinds coffee for their two restaurant partnerships.
The KOBROS COFFEE Menu
KOBROS keeps a menu of three roasts, which changes quarterly. A natural Brazil Peaberry, an natural anaerobic Ethiopia, and a washed Ethiopia are all available on their online store right now. They also have a single-origin espresso for the shop.
In the future, Erik wants to look into roasting a limited release and selling related merch, to tap into the market that many breweries have cornered: the matching of personality types to certain kinds of drinks, like what New Belgium has done with their Voodoo Ranger line.
As for now, the Kopacks import greens from Cafe Imports and Balzac Brothers and Company.
From the beginning, the KOBROS menu has offered a weekly craft latte, with ingredients hand-made every Wednesday on the shop’s off-day. That means that ingredients like cherries, pineapple, hickory, and vanilla are all pulped, crushed, scraped, and otherwise essenced into syrups for the weekly drink, which has taken many forms, such as Pear Orgeat, Butternut Squash, or orange varietal latte.
The shop is serious about coffee, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously otherwise. Both Erik and Sean want to create an atmosphere similar to what they experienced at Austin’s in Winter Park; a vibe they call “low-key local.” Instead of minimalist white walls, they chose dark gray. They rotate different motorcycles through as decor.
Balancing it all can be difficult–every task, like prepping weekly lattes, coordinating the logistics of greens shipments, and even just making sure the cafe has whole milk, falls to the brothers.
Still, they love to do it. And the payoff is worth it. The community comes to them for caffeine and for a craft coffee atmosphere that’s rare in Norfolk. To invite non-specialty coffee drinkers in, they also host events: a polar-plunge type winter beach party every January called Blue Lips and Drip, as well as a “Decafriday” night every month, which Sean and Erik run by themselves so that the proceeds can go to local nonprofits such as the LGBT Life Center.
Coming Up Next
Erik is in the final months of his current Navy contract, which he took to help pay for the initial buildout of KOBROS. When that’s over, he’s looking forward to diving headlong into the cafe and using that extra time to push the brand forward, as well as shouldering a bigger cut of the daily labor involved in the company.
Once both Kopacks are working full-time for the cafe, they’ll be opening up discussion on expanding the operation. While they want their coffee shop to remain a destination in itself, they would also like to open a smaller to-go shop in a city like Tokyo or London.
“We don’t want to lose the vibe by expanding,” Sean says. But they do want to explore their options, especially since they both have so much experience living and working abroad.
They’re also considering turning the warehouse roastery into a community event space, since it has more square footage than the brick & mortar. But for right now, the Kopacks are focused more on the cafe space, rotating their weekly craft latte, and bulking up online sales.
They regularly sell out of their retail coffee in-house because of their cult-like following. But, Sean says, there’s still a lot of space to grow and more customers to find outside of their immediate community, and that’s the market they’re now making moves to conquer.
With the growth that KOBROS COFFEE has seen since they started roasting, the Kopacks are anticipating a bigger MCR machine might be in order in the near future. “The 3K is a workhorse,” Erik says. As their local following continues to grow, and as they up their online retail sales, the workhorse will surely appreciate a second machine to share in the weekly roasting.
Bring KOBROS COFFEE Home
You can order from KORBROS COFFEE’s online store through their website. If you’re in the area, you can stop by KOBROS COFFEE any day of the week but vanilla-scraping day–Wednesday–between 8-4 (10-2 on Sundays). You can also drink their coffee at restaurants Toast or Handsome Biscuit in Norfolk, or follow them on Instagram.