Gabe Holloway with Soul Caffeine

Gabe Holloway with Soul Caffeine

In this episode we sat down with Gabe Holloway. Gabe, and his partner Eric, run and operate Soul Caffeine. At Blue Fish we lovingly refer to Soul Caffeine as Blue Fish's Eastern Shore office. Gabe and Eric started Soul Caffeine out of a desire to create a "third place" where people could gather and feel welcome. Make sure to follow Soul Caffeine on Facebook and Instagram or visit their site. They make a mean v60 and take great care in brewing each cup of coffee. So, let's dive right in with Gabe Holloway!


Gabe: I am Gabe Holloway, and I am with Soul Caffeine.

Marcus: Welcome to the podcast, Gabe.

Gabe: Thank you.

Marcus: Yeah. I joke with people that Soul Caffeine is the eastern campus for Blue Fish because I'm in there quite a bit. At one point in time when Blue Fish was just getting started I actually had a seat at a local, well not a local, they're a national chain who I will not use their name ...

Gabe: I can guess.

Marcus: ... but one of the local shops of that said national chain that I no longer drink their coffee from. I just absolutely love coffee, and so when you and I started talking and we were talking about podcasts, which we'll get into in a little bit, I was really excited about the idea of you coming on because I love this world. I'm hugely into coffee, whether it be snobbishly into it or just curiously into it, but if it's a $25 AeroPress machine or a $1500 completely manual espresso machine. I don't have one of those yet. Notice I said "yet." It's a good year this year at Blue Fish. Maybe I'll get my espress-

Gabe: Can get one for the studio. Right.

Marcus: Yeah, I'd get one for the studio. Anyway, but before we get into all of that, why don't you give us a little bit of background information about who you are and where you grew up, where'd you go to school at, that kind of thing.

Gabe: Yeah. Well, I was born in South Korea, adopted when I was four months old. You don't hear much of that anymore of adoptions at only four months, especially international stuff, but adopted and I grew up in Opelika. The majority of my life I lived in Opelika. Went to Auburn University.

Marcus: [crosstalk 00:01:53] Opelika.

Gabe: Yeah. Yeah. I applied to schools everywhere. I applied to Hawaii. I applied to a couple schools out in California. It was like if I'm going to get out of here it needs to be way, way-

Marcus: You ended up going right down the street.

Gabe: But yeah, my dad passed away in my sophomore year of high school and my mom had some health problems, and I just felt like I ought to stay home, just be home, kind of take care of things there. I'm glad I did because I met my wife and we ended up getting married in my last year of college. Then from there went into ministry. I really had no idea what I was doing, but there's local church here in the area in Fairhope decided that it'd be a good idea to hire a 22 year old kid out of college to do youth ministry for a group of like 200 youth. Did that for a few years. Went from there to seminary. I'm giving you the really short version here.

Marcus: Yeah, that's [crosstalk 00:02:57]

Gabe: Went from there to seminary in Kentucky, Asbury Theological Seminary. Got my Masters of Divinity and then came back down to work at a church in Daphne. Worked for them for a few years before we opened up Soul Caffeine.

Marcus: Was that Daphne United Methodist?

Gabe: Yeah, Daphne United Methodist.

Marcus: Okay. Yeah. I knew some of the folks over there. It's a great church. But that is not the typical path to entrepreneurship.

Gabe: No. It's not at all. I was thinking about that on the way over here today is just I was listening to some of your previous episodes and just thinking, "I really have no place here."

Marcus: No, because I think the point is that what we're trying to do with this podcast is show people that it's not the Ivy League school, it's not the born with a silver spoon in your mouth, it's not the X, it's not whatever that is. It's really just like, "I really want to do this cool thing. I'm going to stop talking about doing this cool thing and I'm going to take action and do that cool thing." And you've done that, so by all means you belong here.

Gabe: Well, thank you. Yeah, it's not something that I would have ever imagined, but it is something that I had really thought a lot about. When I worked as the youth pastor in Fairhope, every Monday morning there was a group of us on staff that would walk down a couple blocks to a local coffee shop, and we'd sit down, have our coffee, just talk about the weeks, whatever. There was always this other group in the coffee shop, same time, same group of guys, that eventually we started to have these conversations with. It wasn't always that serious, but there were a couple conversations I remember where it was really about some heavier stuff. One time it as basically the problem of evil, like why do bad things happen at all? Why do bad things happen to good people, right?

Marcus: Light topics. Yeah. Light topics.

Gabe: Light topic, right. But we had been there at the shop and we had been around them enough by this point that they felt comfortable talking to us about that. They knew that we were this little group of pastors from the local church and they were curious. But what always struck me about it was that we'd pay for our coffee and we'd walk the two blocks down back to the church and back to our offices where we would do "ministry" for the rest of the day.

Marcus: Right. Well, correct me if I'm wrong, but I've worked for churches before, and I've been in leadership positions in churches before. Sometimes those conversations don't ever take place in church, because people don't feel comfortable enough. There's kind of a wall or a face that people put up when they walk through those doors. If you're not having those kinds of conversations then people aren't learning. It's okay to ask the questions. It's okay, but oftentimes people just don't feel that freedom to be able to bring something up as difficult as why do bad things happen to good people, or is there really a God, or those kinds of things.

Gabe: Yeah, and I think with that, we're seeing and we've seen for a long time, this shift where we've got mainline denominations and just really the local church in general that's in decline, and a lot of pastors and church leaders scratching their heads wondering, "Why? Why aren't we engaging more people? Why are millennials leaving the church in droves?" I think really there's just a lack of authenticity when you walk through the doors of a church. Not every church. This isn't against [crosstalk 00:06:52]

Marcus: Not your church, audience. He's not talking about the one that you go to. He's talking about the other person's church.

Gabe: But just this sort of obstacle to having some real conversations about hard things and building some deeper relationships that are out of more than just wanting to proselytize, wanting to convert someone so to speak.

Marcus: It's almost like when people walk through the doors they're bracing for that, right?

Gabe: Right. Yeah, I think they are. I think they're bracing for that and they're holding their wallets too. I mean, really.

Marcus: Yeah. There is a lot of truth to that, yeah.

Gabe: Yeah. I just I had that in mind early on that the church, if it was going to really be on mission of making disciples which is what Jesus gave to the church in Matthew 28, that they needed to get outside of this brick and mortar local sort of institution, organized church. I didn't have the term at the time, but I knew that coffee shops, and bars, and parks, and these places were going to be the places that the church really needed to go. I later got the term third place. You think of your home as your first place, and work as your second place. What are those third places, those other places where you tend to spend a lot of time? It's a sociological term this guy wrote about, but there's some different ways to understand it, but one of the main ways is what is this sort of neutral zone place where people gather, and it's not about what you believe, it's not about what you do as a career, it's not even necessarily about you and your family. It's about the community that's there. With Soul Caffeine that was our goal, that was our sort of objective is building a place that could be a third space for people, that people felt comfortable coming to be whether it was working like a second office, meeting a friend, or just to come be by themselves for a little while if they need to.

Marcus: Absolutely. By all appearances I think you've succeeded incredibly in doing that. Every time I'm in there, because you have a couple of groupings of more comfortable chairs, like not necessarily easy chairs, but more comfortable living room chairs, and you have what you would normally have in a coffee shop, which are the tables with the chairs as well. Every time I'm in there you have groups of people sitting and talking and having discussions and stuff like that. I know you've also kind of been tied into some of the churches in the areas and they've held events there and stuff like that, so by all means you've succeeded in creating that third place where people can come and just have a great cup of coffee. I highly recommend the V60's, but yeah.

Gabe: Yeah, it's been a good place even for pastors to be able to come and have that space like we had the space in Fairhope where we could go and have coffee. These pastors come and sort of be with this community that they've been charged to be in ministry to.

Marcus: Yeah. You've discussed the reasoning behind it, but what are the steps that you had to take? Because obviously jumping into a coffee business, restaurants in general, whether it's a coffee business or a café or whatever, are notoriously ...

Gabe: Diff ... Yeah.

Marcus: ... difficult, right? How did you even begin to go down that path?

Gabe: Honestly I was in the United Methodist Church. I had the degree that I needed to to be ordained. I was going through this process of ordination, which is just this long sort of convoluted process, and I'm not United Methodist anymore so I can say that. I was actually laying down with my wife one night in bed and I was just kind of saying, "I don't think that this coffee shop is ever going to happen." I said, "I just need to move on with this ordination stuff with the church and just see where our lives end up." Around that same time, and by the way this was about eight years after that time at Fairhope where that vision sort of started, around that same time my now business partner quit his job with HP, started volunteering like 40 hours of his week at the church I was working at just doing IT or website design, whatever else needed to be done. We just started to hang out, and as we got to know one another I came to find out that they had this vision of opening a coffee shop too.

Marcus: That's cool.

Gabe: We were entertaining the idea but we were never really serious about it. Then one day, I can't even remember when it was, but we just kind of turned to each other and said, "Why don't we just do this? What's stopping us?" He brought the business know-how. He's started businesses before. He kind of knows his way around that. I had absolutely no business background or any understanding of that, but I felt like that I brought a little bit more of the vision, like what it could look like, and so it just made sense. We all sat down in my living room together, me and my wife and him and his wife, and said, "If we're going to do it, let's do it." That was January 1st, 2016 that we did that. Then we opened the shop March 21st, so it was really quick.

Marcus: So really only three months or less, right?

Gabe: Right.

Marcus: I mean, ish.

Gabe: The build-out was only six weeks, so we were there all day, every day, sometimes all night, building this thing out to get it open quickly.

Marcus: Well, it's beautiful.

Gabe: Yeah, thank you.

Marcus: For those of you that haven't been there, he's got chalk paint on the walls and so they have lots of sayings and art and stuff like that up on the wall, and it's really kind of a nice place to walk into. Very, very comforting, and fast internet. Go back to the first day or two of being open. What was that like?

Gabe: If I'm being just completely honest I thought maybe I'd made a mistake. Getting up at 4:00 in the morning to get to the shop and get it opened up around 5:00, and then being there all day on your feet just working behind the bar, and then closing and not getting out of there until 10 o'clock at night. I remember I turned to one of our friends there at the end of the day that was just kind of hanging out and I was like, "You know, I haven't gone to the bathroom all day." It was just nonstop. I thought, "Man, I don't know if I can keep this up." But I think there was just kind of this understanding that I had then too along with that that this was going to smooth out. I wouldn't be working all day every day.

Marcus: Right. Eighty hours a week.

Gabe: Right, but that it would smooth out. It's taken some time, but it's definitely a lot better than it was those first couple of weeks I'd say.

Marcus: Yeah. One of the things that I always like to ask restaurateurs or folks that are in the food business is, like for a chef I might ask like what's your favorite meal, but you like coffee, otherwise you wouldn't have gone into this.

Gabe: Right. Yeah.

Marcus: When you think of a good cup of coffee, what do you think of? Do you prepare it specific way? Is it a certain type of bean? Does it have to have hints of something?

Gabe: Not necessarily. I tend to go toward more of the lighter roasts. I think African coffees are a lot of fun because those tend to be the more complex, but I'll prepare it just about any way. I think right now I'm kind of on a cortado kick. A cortado is basically a five ounce drink. It's served in a Gibraltar glass, like you would liquor, you know?

Marcus: Yeah.

Gabe: It's two shots of espresso with some steamed milk on top. It's like a short latte, but it's just a great way to enjoy the espresso.

Marcus: That's interesting. I've never had one of those before, so next time I'm in I'll have to ... I don't know if it's on the menu, so I'm ...

Gabe: It'll give you a good kick.

Marcus: Yeah. I have a friend who shall remain nameless, but for whatever reason we got on this espresso, steamed milk, with tequila kick. It's not a good mix, just for the record. It sounds like it's a very similar drink minus the tequila. That was delicious. If you were talking to someone that was getting started, or that they were thinking about opening up their own business, and they were looking for some bit of wisdom, what would you say to that person?

Gabe: I think it would be, just based out of my own experience, to pull people in around you who know how to do the things that you don't, which has been a lot for me honestly, even to the process of making coffee, it's really requires this sense of humility to go and ask people who have been in the business for a while. Ask people who have experience just crunching the numbers and to not be afraid of saying, "Everybody keeps saying 'P and L.' I have no idea what P and L is, right? Just tell me."

Marcus: Profit and loss statement for those of your listening that don't know.

Gabe: Yeah. Is being in this continual willingness to learn for me has been most important, and to not take myself too seriously or to think too highly about where I am in that. I love, and you and I have talked outside of here about this, but I just love listening to other business podcasts, especially yours. It helps me to realize that I'm not alone in that, that you look at some of these big guys out there, these big business tyr ... not tyrants, tycoons, that kind of started the same way. They didn't have all of this great business knowledge and understanding, and they kind of surrounded themselves with people who did, and that's how they got where they are.

Marcus: Yeah, the stories are oftentimes similar of the imposter syndrome, and then finally realizing, "Well, maybe I do kind of know what I'm doing here," but it's not an arrogant thing, it's just kind of a at some point in time you get into a groove and that's typically when people start thinking about, "Okay, well now I need to expand, or I need to do this, or go in a different direction, or whatever." Yeah, I'm the same way. I love listening. The next question is what are the last two books that you've read that you found helpful? But before that, I was talking to you one time and you mentioned How I Built This, the podcast.

Gabe: Yeah. NPR.

Marcus: I do want to specifically mention that because I think that's what you were referencing just a minute ago with the business podcast. It's NPR.

Gabe: That's right. Yeah.

Marcus: They do just such a fantastic job of telling the story of some of these people that they have on the podcast. Obviously we're not dealing with NPR budgets here, so we're trying to do a very good job of that, and I think we're knocking it out of the park. What other podcasts do you listen to besides ... Are there any others besides How I Built This?

Gabe: Yeah, well How I Built This is just great because I kind of get a good fix every week of just empowerment and realizing, "Yes, I can do this." Like I've got it in me. I just need to continue, like I said, surrounding myself with people who know how and can teach me and be willing to learn. As far as other podcasts go, I love storytelling podcasts, so there's a couple that I listen to. Another that's by NPR called StoryCorps. It's just really short story interviews, and it's great kind of getting a good perspective on peoples' lives. They try to do a broad spectrum of interviews. The other is a storyteller organization call Moth. I don't know if you've heard of that one. It's The Moth.

Marcus: Like moth as in ...

Gabe: Yeah, as in the bug.

Marcus: A bug?

Gabe: Yeah. I'm not 100% sure. I think that the idea being that moths are attracted to light and being pulled into that, and sort of as we tell our stories it's like a light drawing people in. Those are two just to me phenomenal podcasts that kind of take me outside of myself and help me to realize sometimes the greater global community, but also to be able to look at people across the bar whenever I'm serving them coffee and to remember that they have a story, and to appreciate that, to know that. Even the difficult customers, to appreciate and know that they have a story.

Marcus: Yeah. It's even in our business, because when we work with clients, and I'm not necessarily keying off of the difficultness, but the empathy of putting yourself in their shoes and understanding where they're coming from is helpful in our business too. I would imagine it's a little bit different because your time with somebody is probably a lot less than what ours are, but you're building relationships over the course of the period of weeks or months or whatever. Always kind of keeping that at the forefront and remembering that they have experiences that are shaping who they are and why they're reacting certain ways and stuff like that is important. So what are the last two books that you've read that you found helpful?

Gabe: I think that I've found helpful, I'm working my way through Tools of Titans, by Timothy Ferriss, and just kind of jumping back and forth in that.

Marcus: That's not a sit down and read [crosstalk 00:22:52]

Gabe: No, it's not. It's not.

Marcus: For those of you that haven't seen it, it's sitting on the shelf behind Gabe, and it's a good three or four inches thick. It's what 700 pages of something like that?

Gabe: Yeah, and it's a great I think resource, just something to kind of keep on the side table and turn to every once in a while.

Marcus: What Tim did was, for those of you listening that maybe aren't familiar with who he is, he is the author of 4-Hour Workweek, 4-Hour Body, 4-Hour Chef, and he started as an experiment because I think he had some things that he wanted to work on as far as interview skills and speaking and stuff like that. He started a podcast. Well, the podcast became wildly successful. Millions of downloads for every episode. What he did with Tools of Titans is he took all of those interviews and kind of culled out the nuggets of wisdom in those and then put it together in book form and is now selling that. Another podcast if anybody's interested in business or health or any of that kind of stuff, Tim's podcast is great. But yeah, Tools of Titans, that's a tome, not light reading.

Gabe: Yeah. I've got that one next to me, and I have one called The Tangible Kingdom. I read that one back in seminary. It's by a couple of guys, Hugh Halter and Matt Smay. They're both I think I'd say former pastors, but still in ministry. That was really the book that has encouraged me throughout this process with Soul Caffeine because those guys brought this understanding to me and sort of put it on paper what I had been feeling about the local church and how the local church could actually sort of spread out and change and morph a little bit in order to continue its mission, and not just die and sort of disappear. I've found a lot of encouragement with that, and that's one that I would definitely recommend to anybody that's kind of got that tension, they're caught in that tension of seeing the church do all of these things but not quite being on point with mission.

Marcus: Right. Yeah, because the message doesn't need to change, just the way that you relate to people.

Gabe: Right. Yeah.

Marcus: Right. Yeah. What about your free time? I ask this question, and those of you that are listening, I almost laugh every time I ask this because as business owners we all have interests, right?

Gabe: Yeah.

Marcus: But oftentimes the business kind of takes over that stuff, but do you make time to go and do any hobbies?

Gabe: In the last year, no, and that's just kind of been where we are with the business. I think before that I played golf. We'd have friends over and barbecue, stuff like that. Yeah, I'm pretty much caught up in Soul Caffeine most days. I think we're working towards that because I do think that it's healthy and it's necessary, but this is a season right now where we're really having to devote a lot to the shop and so any free time I can get I just try to invest in my family. I've got three kids and making sure-

Marcus: Beautiful little babies.

Gabe: Yeah.

Marcus: What is the plan for Soul Caffeine? I know it's early, but do you guys are thinking maybe second location?

Gabe: We are, and I don't know if I'm supposed to say this or not. We had an opportunity with OWA, O-W-A, that's going in in Foley, and actually just last week we all kind of sat down and decided that we weren't quite ready for something like that yet.

Marcus: I know they're asking quite a pretty penny for that space too.

Gabe: They are. I think that we could have probably gone back and negotiated that rent, but when it came down to it it was really just we want to get settled in more to our Daphne location, to our first location. But yeah, we'd love to branch out and do more locations. Right now we're thinking a lot about a bakery. We're outsourcing our pastries at the moment, but Mallory, my business partner's wife, is a fantastic baker and-

Marcus: She make all the fudge you guys have [crosstalk 00:27:50]

Gabe: She makes all the fudge, those king cake truffles that we had. I don't know if you tried one of those, but they're-

Marcus: No, but the fudge was incredible.

Gabe: Yeah. We'd love to get her into a space where she can really shine with that, and maybe even have an event space. We get a lot of requests for events and to host and cater things.

Marcus: Small music venue?

Gabe: Yeah. Yeah.

Marcus: It's funny because you don't know this, but I grew up in Washington, D.C., and for the life of me because on podcast day I can't remember names to anything so forgive me, but there was a place in Vienna, Virginia that was a coffee shop/sandwich shop during the day during the week, and then on the weekends they would have small concerts. They had a legitimate concert venue, but it was 2000 square feet-ish, maybe 2500. It wasn't massive, right?

Gabe: Right.

Marcus: But it was big enough that they could hold 50 people or something like that. They had some fairly big names, but it was like they would do an acoustic set, or it was kind of stripped down. When we moved here, we actually bought a Christian bookstore in Daphne with the idea of converting it into a coffee shop/small music venue. I think it's fantastic that you're heading in that direction because I think that kind of thing in this area would just be phenomenal. Just a small place where it's really intimate, people can come and see good music, have a great cup of coffee, talk with some friends. Yeah, that would be really cool.

Gabe: Yeah. Music, a lot like coffee, is just that thing that can draw people in from everywhere, and so that'd be great.

Marcus: Yeah. To wrap up, where can people find you?

Gabe: We are on US Highway 98, just north of Target in Daphne, so 2004 US Highway 98. We're in a shopping strip near Lennys Subs and Marco's Pizza, just sandwiched between those two. We're open Monday through Saturday 6:00 to 7:00, 6:00 a.m., 7:00 p.m.

Marcus: Very good. And online? Facebook?

Gabe: Yeah., and we're on Facebook and Instagram. We're on Twitter but Twitter doesn't get that much traffic these days. Yeah, so Facebook is a really great way to kind of see our new drinks, anything that we're featuring, and find out a little bit more about us.

Marcus: Yeah, that's cool. Well, I want to thank you for coming on the podcast. I know though doing this kind of stuff is not something people get a chance to do all that often, but I appreciate you coming on and sharing your story.

Gabe: Thank you for giving me the opportunity. I really enjoyed it.

Marcus: Yeah. Any final comments, thoughts?

Gabe: No, just come in and have a cup of coffee and see what it's all about. I love getting to meet people like you that walk through. Whether it's me or my business partners, or even any of our baristas, we'll always talk the time to talk if you want to talk.

Marcus: That's awesome. Yeah. Well, again, appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as a business owner. It was great talking with you.

Gabe: Thanks, Marcus.

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