The rebirth of Amity Coffee Roasters

The rebirth of Amity Coffee Roasters
Photo courtesy of Amity Coffee Roasters

The owners of Amity Coffee Roasters in Greenwood want their fans to know they aren’t going anywhere.

That’s an important clarification, because right now on Greenwood’s main street there is no Amity Coffee. There is Amity Past — the memory of the popular shop that opened in 2016 and shared space with Wilderlove Handmade and Vintage at 13 West Market. Then there is Amity Future — the vision for a new coffee shop in the old garage of the Greenwood firehouse, just across the street from the old location.

The new site will take extensive renovation, and the official target date to reopen is Dec. 1. That would mean a gap of more than six months since the last time customers walked in. In terms of a cafe business, that’s an enormous slice of time and for many businesses it could have been fatal. But owners Elmer and Melody Slaubaugh have no plans to shut down.

“We feel really confident that it'll bounce back, and the community hasn't forgotten us, which is really really great,” Melody Slaubaugh said.

The shop has had a lot of challenges in the past year. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Delaware in early 2020 with all the restrictions that came after, especially for restaurants and cafes where people gather. The Slaubaughs bought Amity on April 1, 2020 while it was still closed from the restrictions, so they’ve never known a time without the pandemic.

“Some of our regulars we’ve known for months, and then we’d see them out and about without a mask and be like ‘Oh, that’s what you actually look like,” Melody said.

At long last, restrictions eased and customers could come in without a mask on if they chose. Then a little over a year after the Slaubaughs took over Amity, on May 18, 2021, the Pit Stop bar just next door burned down. The coffee shop’s building survived and it initially seemed like just a very close call, but the ripple effects of the fire, which was later ruled arson, were just beginning for Amity and the town.

Amity had to get extensive cleaning done because of smoke damage, and as that was happening, the building’s owner presented them with a lease they said they weren’t comfortable signing.

The next thing Amity customers knew, the shop was closed and its future looked very uncertain.

The business it shared space with, Wilderlove, has for now moved down the street to the former grocery building next to the post office and is open again.  

The origins of a gathering place

The original Amity Coffee building almost seemed like it had been designed and then aged for decades with the intention of creating a perfect coffee shop space, with weathered hardwood flooring, large bright windows out front and an old fashioned aluminum ceiling. Accenting this were the gleaming new counter and the coffee roaster in the back.

In reality, the space was an old hardware store reinvented as an antique and vintage shop, and turning part of it into a coffee shop took time and investment in partnership with Wilderlove.  

The building had been a hardware store for decades. Sussex County records for the property list it as a hardware store in 1900, although that building probably does not survive. In 1903, a railroad explosion decimated downtown Greenwood. The Wilmington Morning News listed a hardware store as receiving $7,500 in damage, which would have been a considerable sum in those days, although it’s not clear if it was the same building. Then in 1914, the Morning News reported that Greenwood, which by now it was calling an “ill-favored town,” was hit by a devastating fire that destroyed 14 buildings — one of them a hardware store.

The last iteration of the hardware store closed in the late 90s, according to the News Journal. After that, the building briefly housed a church, and eventually Gallery 16, the precursor to Wilderlove.

The parking lot out front of the former hardware store became a busy place as Amity began to thrive, and it was always a mix of many different people. Out-of-state tags were common outside, as people on their way to or from the beaches stopped in.

Customers who walked up the wooden steps and went inside found themselves in a local gathering spot, with people on laptops, or moms with kids out for a break in their day, or a few people catching up with each other at the tables or on the couches. Local visitors could count on bumping into people they knew.

There used to be a stereotype of coffee shop customers: The hipster, the coffee snob. That did not hold true at Amity. You’d see people who would fit in at any coffee shop, of course, but you’d also see local workers in coveralls popping in for a coffee before work or on their lunch break.

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How a coffee shop ended up in Greenwood

Amity traces its roots back to a fortuitous Christmas gift, according to former co-owner Marie Miller. Her future brother-in-law, Marty Miller, got a home coffee roaster as a gift in 2012, and fortunately for coffee lovers in the Greenwood area became a roasting enthusiast. He joined forces with Justin and Lisa Chupp in 2014 to start Amity Coffee Roasters, which at that point had no shop and served as a kind of coffee dealer making deliveries to caffeine dependent locals who knew about them.

Marie Miller in front of Amity Coffee. Photo courtesy of Marie Miller

In early 2016, the Chupps stepped out of the business and Marie Miller partnered with Marty to open the coffee shop, sharing the space with Gallery 16.

She said she had been thinking about opening a cafe for a while. The inspiration for it came from a year of studying abroad in Australia.

“The coffee scene is very strong there … it seems like every little suburban nook and cranny, and Sydney, especially, has a delicious coffee shop that’s kind of community oriented.”

She was a fan. “I was like, ‘This is amazing, like I’ve never seen anything like this in America.'”

With the idea for something similar in the back of her mind, Miller eventually worked at a bakery and coffee shop back in the States to see how the business worked. Then she married her husband David Miller and moved to Greenwood near her coffee-roasting brother-in-law.

“It was just like, this is a sign, we’ve got to do this,” she said. “And I felt like Greenwood really needed something, not just good coffee,” although she confessed she was in fact dying for good coffee when she moved to the area (no offense, Shore Stop). Miller said she felt the town had a hole, a need for a gathering place. “It was just a place that I hope and I think everybody that walked through felt accepted and they felt like it was kind of their home away from home. And I think people were looking for something like that.”

The space changed over time. Gallery 16 became Wilderlove Handmade and Vintage, and the coffee shop floor plan changed several times as the two businesses worked together to make improvements.

Not too many people came in the door the first year, Miller said, but word spread and tourists passing through started noticing the striking signs designed by Wilderlove co-owner Sonya Chisenhall. When they stopped by to see what it was all about, they often came back again.

The vision for a community meeting space had become a reality.

Miranda Collins, a barista who started working at Amity in fall 2020, pointed to the dynamic of Wilderlove and Amity working together to create a unique draw. She recalled that even customers from out of town would use the shop as a meetup spot. People from, say, Dover and Annapolis would spend a couple hours together on Greenwood’s main street. It had become a destination.

Photo courtesy of Marie Miller

Big changes

Speaking at her home in Greenwood, with her young daughter watching Curious George in the background and occasionally interjecting commentary on the action, Marie Miller said when she became a mother she eventually realized she couldn’t do both jobs well — coffee shop owner and mom — and she had to make a painful choice.

She started praying about it, she said, and Elmer and Melody Slaubaugh popped into her mind. Melody, a full-time teacher, had worked part time as a barista at Amity.

The Slaubaughs, for their part, had dreamed of owning a coffee shop and they wanted it to be just like Amity. Then they got a call from Marie.

“It just felt like an absolute dream come true, just way sooner than we ever thought,” Melody said. They called back right away.

They would soon be launched into a bit of a roller coaster ride.

Elmer and Melody Slaubaugh in the old coffee shop building. Photo courtesy of Amity Coffee Roasters

In a lot of ways running the business during COVID was stressful, Elmer said, but it was also cool to see how the community rallied around them during the pandemic. Business did dip, but he said in many ways they stayed pretty much on course for an average year. “I think that is completely because our community is saying, we would like to see it stay and see it continue being here … I really do believe that’s why we’re still here.”

Then, as if they didn’t have enough challenges, came the fire.  

At first, it didn’t seem like cause for panic. Someone called them during the night and told them there was a small fire in the bar, not too big of an issue. So they went back to sleep. But then more phone calls started pouring in, and it became apparent that this was no small fire.

Firefighters work at the scene of the blaze May 18 on West Market Street in Greenwood. Photo courtesy of Amity Coffee Roasters

Flames billowed out of the roof of the building as firefighters battled for hours. One of the bar’s walls almost touched the coffee shop, and on the other side of the bar stood an apartment building. Somehow Amity’s building and the apartments both came through almost unscathed while the bar was turned to a blackened shell. Amity provided the firefighters with free coffee during the ordeal.

The Pit Stop had been the center of controversy in town, and the fire marshal later determined the blaze was an arson. The fire marshal’s office recently said there are no updates on that investigation.

With the fire out, it seemed like Amity could soon get back to normal.

“We really thought we would open later that morning,” Melody said. “... I think I posted like ‘We’re now opening at 10.’”

Collins said she helped serve coffee and tried to help clean up ashes and soot in a sort of ignorant bliss. “I knew for sure that if I just went in and cleaned and got the tables ready that we’d be ready to go the next day.”

Instead, they discovered that due to extensive smoke damage they would have to close for professional cleaning. They also found that one of their bathrooms had been damaged by the flames, so that would need to be repaired.

During all this came the differences with their landlord over the lease, and suddenly the Slaubaughs found themselves needing to move in a hurry. In another show of community support that Elmer called incredible, dozens of people showed up to help them move out and store their equipment.

The rebirth of Amity

For months, the only place Amity has existed is on paper and on social media, where fans celebrated the Slaubaughs’ announcement they would be back and offered many suggestions on where they could move, including to neighboring towns.

“We felt like it was worth investing (in the new space) in order to stay in Greenwood, even though we’ll have to be closed for a longer period of time,” Elmer said. The community has been so supportive, he said, they just didn’t feel it would be right to go somewhere else.

Many in the community seemed to feel the same way. When Amity announced the new location on Facebook, comment after comment celebrated their return to town.  

“We’re excited they are staying in Greenwood,” Town Manager Janet Todd told The Independent.

As for Amity’s long term viability, the Slaubaughs are optimistic. The coffee business has not always been known as a stable one. Coffee shops will open up for a year or so, then vanish, and that’s without dealing with COVID and fires. But Elmer said it’s a big help having their own roaster, because they’re able to get a quality bean for a much lower price, and they’re able to sell the beans as well as lattes.

The old fire company garage does not look much like a cozy coffee shop at this point. Old paint is peeling off concrete blocks and bricks inside, and there’s not much light. The front is just a large old garage door, along with an entryway with decaying trim. But when Elmer and Melody look at it, they see a future gleaming, spacious new coffee shop far different than what’s there now.

It doesn't quite look like a coffee shop yet. Photo courtesy of Amity Coffee Roasters

At about 3,000 square feet, it’s three times bigger than the entire first floor of their old building, which they shared with Wilderlove, and they’d like to rent it out for events. They plan to put a coffee bar with seating along one side, with the brickwork of the old firehouse next door as a backdrop. Among other renovations they'll repaint the walls and ceiling, clean the floor, replace the dingy garage door with a glass front and add windows.

Amity’s fans should be excited about what’s next, Elmer said.

In a dream world, he said, they would have been able to reopen right away, “but it’s a labor of love and I think that it’s going to end up being really worth the wait … we’ve been able to sink a lot of time and a lot of energy into creating this.”  

They want to bring back that community meeting space.

“It’s not just a place that you go get liquid caffeine,” Collins said. It’s a place that you go to commune with friends and to be in community with people.”

“I’m so excited for them,” Miller said. “... Amity before added so much to Greenwood but it’s going to exponentially add way more with that space.”  

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