Opening a coffeehouse in a new city in the middle of a pandemic may seem overly ambitious, but Dan FitzHenry, the owner of Grit Coffee, has never shied away from a good opportunity to grow his business. Grit’s newest cafe, a storefront on Libbie Avenue in the West End, represents the brand’s first foray into Richmond but FitzHenry’s sixth location overall.
Grit’s flagship location near the campus of the University of Virginia had been a coffee shop for years before FitzHenry snapped it up, elevated the customer experience and made Grit into a staple of the Charlottesville coffee scene.
“At that point, our product was really the shop itself and the experience the customer had with us,” he says. “We were trying to shake up that rote transaction between the barista and the customer to create connections with people.”
After two other owner-operated cafes were shuttered within his first year in the coffee industry, FitzHenry quickly found himself contemplating a rapid expansion. The opportunity ultimately proved too good to pass up.
“It was obviously a steep learning curve figuring out how to run three coffee shops in the first year,” he says. “Coffee is a unique industry because you often see your customers daily. It gives you chances to improve their lives every day, but it also entails many opportunities to stumble.”
Since that harrowing first year of operations in 2014, FitzHenry has added two more locations around Albemarle County, with a cafe in Crozet serving as Grit’s farthest outpost outside of Charlottesville. That is until the launch of a pop-up coffee shop at Champion Brewing Co. in the summer of 2019.
That first taste of selling coffee in the River City convinced FitzHenry that his next move must be a brick and mortar in Virginia’s capital. “We had always targeted Richmond as our next logical step,” he notes. “It’s a great drinking town, much bigger than Charlottesville, and of course we were excited to join such a vibrant coffee scene.”
Within Grit’s first six months of the launch of the Libbie Avenue location, FitzHenry says he’s felt nothing but love from Richmond’s many award-winning roasteries and coffeehouses.
“There’s such a collegial feel here,” he says. “We have strong ties to Blanchard’s and Lamplighters: tipping each other off to great importers, talking shop and sharing best practices. It’s cool to enter into a different city and be welcomed and not treated as an outsider.”
FitzHenry feels confident Grit can hold its own against such hometown heavyweights. Since 2017, Travis Mason – a veteran of the Pacific Northwest coffee scene – has transformed the brand from just retail to full-on roaster. With his culinary approach to coffee, Mason aims to bring out the best natural notes and flavors in the beans and not let the roasting process get in the way.
“Travis joined and immediately brought us light years ahead in our roasting game,” FitzHenry explains. “We offer the best beans within our range. We’re never going to be the 40-dollar bag of coffee on the shelf, but we aren’t going to be the 50-cent cup either. We succeed in our lane of bringing really great coffee at a good price.”
For those planning an outing to Grit’s Libbie location, FitzHenry suggests one of its signature blends. “My personal favorite is our Night Shift dark roast,” he says. “The first time I had a cup of our Night Shift, it tasted like it had cream and sugar already in it because it’s smooth with just a taste of sweetness in it.”
Self-proclaimed coffee snobs who love a single-origin should try Grit’s Chiapas from Mexico or the Ethiopican decaf. “If you taste tested it you wouldn’t even know it’s a decaf because of its brighter, fruitier notes,” FitzHenry says.
Those looking to try something altogether new in Richmond would be wise to order the High Five, an espresso pulled with raw sugar, mixed with 6 ounces of velvety smooth, steamed half and half, and topped with Maldon flaky sea salt. “The flakes kind of ruin the latte art, but the little touches of salt cutting through the richness and sweetness of the drink are worth it,” FitzHenry says.
Once the coronavirus is under control, Grit will be ready to welcome customers to hang out in its first-ever Richmond location.
“A year ago, all of our shops were stuffed shoulder-to-shoulder with people – that’s what we love about coffee,” FitzHenry says. “We’re a place for community and connection, not only between guests but also with our baristas as well. We all miss that buzz and interaction that is so hard to find these days.”Temporary hours: 7 a.m. - 3 p.m. 409 Libbie Ave. 292-0557. gritcoffee.com.