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‘Like you’re walking into a friend’s kitchen’: Meadowlark Coffee trading pop-up cart for brick and mortar
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Meadowlark Coffee, which debuted as a pop-up coffee cart in December 2021, is preparing to open a brick and mortar shop this fall in downtown Gainesville. Photo courtesy JP McKenzie

A pop-up cart for specialty coffee in Gainesville has set its parking brake in exchange for the keys to a more permanent mode of caffeination.

Steered into the local coffee scene last December at the hand of owner JP McKenzie, Meadowlark Coffee is slated to open a brick and mortar shop this fall at 109 Bradford St. NE.

The move follows a months-long hiatus owed to Meadowlark’s ability to meet food service rules and regulations set for pop-up operations by the Georgia Department of Public Health.

Like food trucks, pop-ups are required to have a permitted food service establishment to serve as their base of operations, which Meadowlark didn’t have, District 2 Environmental Health Director Jennifer Kinsey said.

“We slowly realized that ‘pop-up,’ in the way that we perceived it, was just not possible at all with the way that the regulations are set up,” McKenzie said. “Our layman’s terms and their legal terms are completely different. The health department basically said, ‘If you want to have a coffee cart, you have to go to the Senate and change the entire regulation, because we have no way to permit you right now.’”

For years, McKenzie has fostered dreams of owning a coffee shop, and the warm reception from Gainesville’s population of connoisseurs was just the fuel that he needed to bring the idea to fruition, he said.

“It kind of lit a fire under us to get it going. There are so many bigger things the Senate needs to be focusing on than getting me a permit to have a coffee cart … and we didn’t really want to wait until some undefined timeline of a bill being passed. I was naive to what was actually feasible for us to do. I think it paved the way for all the stuff that we would need to be ready for this, to open a shop — a lot of learning experiences that I am thankful for.”

Plans for the new location have been submitted and permits have been applied for, McKenzie told The Times June 29, and Meadowlark is awaiting city approval to begin renovations on the 400-square-foot space.

Meadowlark is slated to run as a to-go shop, which McKenzie feels will “fit the mold best,” given the size of the space.

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Meadowlark Coffee owner and operator JP McKenzie (at right) serves a customer during the pop-up coffee cart's debut Dec. 22, 2021, at Enemies of the Average in downtown Gainesville. - photo by Rachel Estes

While McKenzie did have his eye on a larger space prior to securing the shop on Bradford Street, it would have posed fewer opportunities for “slow,” intentional service. 

“We want it to feel more like you’re walking into a friend’s kitchen (and) I’m really thrilled to be able to convey that into a shop aesthetic,” McKenzie said. “And because it is so small, we want it to feel very intimate. I think that this space lends itself to that.”

The space also houses a hint of nostalgia for McKenzie and his wife, Sommer, a Gainesville native and photographer who’s shot many a senior portrait in front of the shop’s windows. McKenzie describes it as “a full-circle moment.”

Meadowlark Coffee is slated to operate seven days a week. McKenzie plans to expand the menu to include more specialty lattes and teas as well as add pastries sourced from a local baker. 

And although Inman Perk Coffee is less than 200 feet away on Washington Street, McKenzie feels no spirit of competition. Rather, his focus is honed on building community.

“When I started in specialty coffee in Atlanta at Brash, there were six coffee shops within a half-mile radius,” he said. “On our off days, all of the baristas would go and visit each other at the different shops. I’m hopeful that we can have more of a community centered around coffee here and among the coffee shops. I view it as friendly. Between ours and theirs and anyone else that comes along, I think everyone will find something that they’re looking for.”

McKenzie said he hopes to offer patrons of Meadowlark the same momentary respite from the day-to-day hustle he found at a cafe called Sisters in Brooklyn, New York.

“One of the first times we were in New York, it was very fast-paced and I was like, ‘I can’t keep up with any of this.’ One day we ended up in Sisters in Brooklyn and it’s like an oasis — it’s very quiet and the antithesis of what Brooklyn feels like to me. Just a whole step out of the outside world and very, very peaceful. And I hope this can be that for people. Even if you’re rushing between meetings or appointments or life in general, this can be somewhat of a break from all that.”

For updates on the shop’s progress and opening, follow Meadowlark Coffee on Facebook and Instagram.