Coffee Dreams in the Pandemic
For Sara Cox ’08, opening a boutique coffee shop in the small town of Fall City, Washington, (population 2,426), was much more than a business venture. Aroma Coffee Co. was the culmination of a 13-year dream, a winding road through what seemed like insurmountable obstacles, and a journey of deepening faith.
But many would add that given the year — 2020 — it was also interesting timing.
“Opening a restaurant in the midst of a pandemic truly does require faith,” she said, “and we’ve not been disappointed once. We walk with a God who asks us to build boats in the desert, put feet into flood waters, shout down fortresses, walk on water, and open businesses in the ‘worst’ of times. He ensures it’s an adventure from start to finish, right?”
Aroma is run by Cox and her two business partners: Kelsey Wilson, operations director; and Emily Ridout, communications director. The three were once strangers from different parts of the country. Today the trio is inseparable. But the story is best told in Cox’s own words.
How did you get from graduating from SPU in 2008 to where you are today?
Cox: All three of us have different stories that led us to this place, but SPU played such a role in the formation of Aroma in my heart and mind. SPU is where I first tasted true Christian community. It’s where I first heard of brilliant leaders shaping industry for the sake of — and through the lens of — the gospel. It was where I learned skills I never knew I’d need as a co-owner of a social enterprise.
In 2007, I was a junior at SPU, studying in the School of Business & Economics. My professors talked about working at a vocation (just a job) versus finding our calling, where we had deeper sense of God-given purpose in our work.
That year, the Lord gave me a vision of opening a coffee shop in the small town where I was attending church with my now husband (also a fellow SPU grad). I graduated in ’08, got married, and the next year began actively pursuing this dream, certain God would breathe life into this vision in the rural community I was growing to love.
More than a decade passed before the dream became a reality. What were some of the challenges along the way?
Cox: Buying and renovating the historic Prescott-Harshman House with its many building and septic challenges was our primary hurdle over the course of more than a decade.
In 2018, a family in town approached us out of the blue and asked if we would be open to them purchasing the building on our behalf. (We had been praying for them specifically for a year.)
We immediately said yes, and they started working toward making the site changes necessary to support a coffee shop. They, too, hit a wall. We thought that might be the door closing for many years. Then, in mid-2019, we got another call saying they had found a solution and that it was time to roll.
We jumped in, securing approval from the King County Landmark Commission in September 2019, and the Health Department approved of our plans in November. In February 2020, after an extensive undertaking with architects and engineers, we submitted a Change of Use permit for the building.
Then COVID-19 broke out.
We waited through March, April, and May and received an approved building permit right at the peak of the pandemic in June. So naturally, we paused. We prayed. We sought counsel. And the Lord made it abundantly clear that we were to move forward. We spent the summer undertaking a massive renovation and opened our doors to the public on Sept. 11, 2020.
What part has your faith played this past year to help move the Aroma dream forward?
Cox: Aroma really is only here by faith. In 2009 we started putting energy behind this dream and then watched the door close probably four different times — once at a lease negotiation for our building back in 2010.
As we waited and trusted, we saw the Lord’s faithfulness in bringing Kelsey on as the third owner. Kelsey had been running a specialty coffee shop in Kirkland for a decade, so she was one very important missing piece.
As we waited, we learned how to forge a foundation of trust, respect, and humility that is making this ownership not only work, but an absolute holy dream.
We got so desperate to see God in it, we began praying that it happens if the only explanation could be him. He answered that prayer!
We received an approved septic design after a decade of being told it wasn’t possible. We received a health permit approval for this historic home in under two weeks. We received a building permit — during COVID — in a record three and a half months! We had two volunteers (my dad and Kelsey’s husband) do all of the construction for free. Our community donated over $30,000 to close our funding gap, after friends and family offered private, low-interest loans to fund the majority.
We truly brought very little to the table besides our deep faith and our willingness to give it our all. As we renovated that home, we covered the walls in scripture before we covered it with paint, and we saturated every pore of the space in worship.
It’s hard to describe the tangible presence of the Lord at Aroma, but every day someone walks in and remarks about it, either as a fellow believer or as someone who just senses good vibes the moment they walk in the door. We feel so honored to steward God’s presence so that those he adores might come into closer contact with his love.
What is the mission of Aroma Coffee Co?
Cox: In the 1904 historically designated Prescott-Harshman House we are offering our neighbors (both near and far) a place to gather, a craft to savor, and an invitation to linger (these days, just on the porches or in the large backyard, of course).
Ultimately, we our mission as followers of Jesus is to taste and see his goodness and to present that goodness to the world. Jesus said that he came that we “might have life and life to the full” (John 10:10). Is there any greater pursuit than to abide in that life and to extend it to every person?
In our one-square-mile town, we could see the gap was broad between God’s promise of living a full, enriching life and the reality of some people’s lives, and we determined that perhaps we could — one cup, one conversation, one encouragement at a time — help the Father close that gap. That gap has never felt larger than during this last year! So many have barely been hanging on, much less experiencing fullness of life. So when the 13-year dream came to fruition right at the peak of the pandemic, we said “yes!” A taste of life is never more needed than now.
Can you give some examples of how that “yes” has played out for you, day to day?
Cox: The Lord has brought us literally every single staff member (now we’re 13 in total), and we’ve watched them form deep relationships that go far beyond what we’ve ever seen in the workplace — or even in many churches. There is deep empathy, compassion, camaraderie, and genuine friendship that moves us to tears daily (and I am not exaggerating).
We have seen lonely community members cautiously come out of mandated hibernation, so grateful to have a safe place to mask up and exchange a few moments of conversation with another human.
We’ve watched people who live on the same block meet for the first time in our lobby, forming relationships that turn a neighborhood into a community.
We’ve prayed with many people who have slowly shared their lives with us and then entrusted us to enter their burdens and carry them to the One we’ve found holds them best.
We’ve been able to help other entrepreneurs launch businesses during this time through our partnership in carrying their goods. Seeing other people alive with purpose and passion is such a reflection of “full life living.”
There have been hundreds of micro moments where we’ve seen the Kingdom of Life breaking through as strangers have become actual friends and as isolation has been shattered by rich, nourishing community. The coffee is dang good, the historic building is stunning, but the presence of God in the house is hands down the greatest gift we invite our community into.
What’s ahead? Where do you go from here?
Cox: With God, it’s always yes and more, right? I think all three of us could say that if this was all it was ever for, it has been hands down worth every prayer, tear, and ounce of energy. But of course, we do dream of more.
This summer we’re partnering with Heirloom Cookshop of Snoqualmie to host Fall City’s first-ever Farmer’s Market. This is a huge step in building community in our town. We dream of live music and private tastings and coffee education events. We dream of being able to invest financially into the community in ways that help it flourish. We dream of helping other Christian business owners cultivate culture that is honoring, joy-filled, genuine, and missional (something we’re just watching unfold with wonder and curiosity).
We’re often asked if we want to branch out and build more “Aromas” and our answer today is “We’re just so grateful to be working and resting in this space, and we know well enough to never tell God never.”