Leah Cleghorn’s love for coffee began by sipping java with her Paw Paw in Calhoun County when she was growing up.
It’s a bond between coffee, family and community that led to Southern Girl Coffee Co.
It also solidified Cleghorn’s belief that every cup of coffee has a story.
For her, the story began with that cup of coffee with her grandfather but got serious when she returned home after college five years ago with a dream of starting a coffee shop in her hometown of Oxford.
But Cleghorn didn’t want to open a coffee shop just to sell other coffees, she wanted to roast and brew her own.
That meant having to master the art of roasting. So her stepfather, Bobby Jones, helped her build a roaster out of an old gas grill and they began learning to roast coffee one pound at a time.
“The first few batches, I have to say, probably weren’t our best coffee, but to us it was the best cup of coffee we ever tasted,” Cleghorn said.
The rudimentary roasting really helped Cleghorn focus on roasting cues like listening for bean cracking and other indicators the roast was right.
“We almost had to go in blind,” she said. “We couldn’t take a look at the color changes.”
Jones and Cleghorn would monitor temperatures and pull beans early to learn about the different levels of the roast. They even charted the temperatures, times and roasts to master the coffee bean roasting process.
“Once we decided our cup of coffee was pretty good, we were like, ‘We need to share it with our community. This is good stuff,’” Cleghorn said.
They started by setting up at farmers markets in Oxford and selling beans and ground coffee in vintage Mason jars. But her clientele wasn’t what Cleghorn, who has a degree in marketing, was expecting.
Her targeted demographic – those between the ages of 25 and 50 who appreciate good coffee – were not the ones buying up her product.
“All of these old women were buying my coffee, little old women,” she said. “I thought, ‘This is not who I thought would buy my coffee.’”
She soon discovered they were buying it for the vintage Mason jars and not the coffee. She switched to bags and tried to build a following for the coffee, not the packaging.
“It took a little while, as any company, to kind of tap into the market,” she said.
Cleghorn saved her money from the farmers market sales and purchased a used coffee roaster in Atlanta. She also began buying her coffee beans in large burlap sacks, a personal goal that convinced her she was truly in the coffee business.
Southern Girl Coffee started with its Colombian Supremo coffee in two roasts because many casual coffee drinkers in Alabama are most familiar with Colombian coffee. Southern Girl later added Sumatra Mandheling, Mexican Alturo, Mayan Royal Select Water Decaf, Ethiopian Harrar and Costa Rican Tarrazu.
Southern Girl has created blends such as the Early Riser breakfast roast, the Coffee Breath dark roast, the Blondie light roast and the Southern Gentleman, which the website describes as, “Like a Southern Gentleman, our blend has great taste. Is strong but sweet. Knows its place but takes charge. And, of course, is Southern born and bred in Oxford, Alabama.”
Cleghorn said they played around with different blends before arriving at the ones they now sell.
“There were a lot of cups of coffee consumed in the last five years,” she said.
As Cleghorn educated herself about coffee, she would spend time educating others at the farmers markets. That led to people not only wanting to buy bags of coffee, but also wanting a cup of coffee brewed by someone who is so passionate about it.
So Cleghorn bought a row of buildings in downtown Oxford and renovated one of them for her coffee roasting operation. She converted an old Shasta camping trailer that she uses to travel and brew and serve coffee at events.
When not at an event, the trailer is parked on Choccolocco Street beside the buildings in downtown Oxford.
“The first few months I would sit in there and wait for customers to come,” Cleghorn said. “I would post on Instagram and Facebook and I was just kind of sitting and waiting. Now we have our regulars and we have a steady pace of customers.”
Growing at a manageable pace has been key, Cleghorn said.
“It’s really neat to see where we started five years ago, which isn’t that long from where we are now. And we even have plans for the future,” she said. “We want to have a sit-down coffee shop soon. Our ultimate goal is to grow slow and strong rather than jump in over our head.”
That coffee shop, Cleghorn hopes, will be a place to slow down and connect.
“We want people to come and congregate,” she said. “Relationships are built around coffee. Communities are built around friendships.
“We really want people to just come and just kind of put down their devices,” she added. “We are going to probably offer Wi-Fi because people want it at a coffee shop. But our ultimate goal is for people to put down their devices and really connect with each other.”
In addition to a coffee shop, Cleghorn would like to convert part of her space to helping startup companies test their concept with the public before going out on their own.
“Lending a hand to other people who want to chase their dreams, like I did, I think would be so cool,” she said.
Cleghorn said she always wanted to return to Oxford after graduating college and would love for others to see that as an option.
“I just wanted to give back to the community that helped me grow,” she said. “A lot of times, especially in our community, we’ve seen people, they’ll graduate, they’ll go to a university and then they’ll move away. I think it’s important for young people who have dreams and have goals to come back and plant it somewhere where you’re from.”
Cleghorn said she loves to see local businesses helping each other. She carries products from three area bakeries and her coffees have been used in beers at Cheaha Brewing Company in Anniston and Back Forty Brewing Company in Gadsden.
“We love our community and I couldn’t pick a better place to have a coffee shop,” Cleghorn said.
Cleghorn is looking to get Southern Girl Coffee into more retail outlets. For now, it’s available at the trailer in downtown Oxford or online. It can be purchased by the cup at Hubbard’s Off Main in Oxford and Artisanal Baked Goods in Anniston.
Cleghorn met her future husband by serving him a cup of coffee at a festival.
“Coffee’s just brought so much joy to me, I just want to spread that joy even more in our community,” she said.
And the Paw Paw who introduced her to that magical elixir? He spent his final years learning to roast coffee with Cleghorn. She said it brought him pleasure and purpose in the last days of his life. She learned many things from him.
“I think patience and determination and just keeping your focus on the end goal is really what pushed me through, and support from the community and my family.”
The Product: Single source and blended coffee beans and ground coffee.
Take Home: A bag of Southern Gentleman blend ($15).
31 East Choccolocco Street, Oxford
Follow on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)
Don’t miss out! Subscribe today to have Alabama’s leading headlines delivered to your inbox.