Donkey Coffee, 17 1/2 W Washington Street Athens, OH 45701
Athens is the epitome of the college town, fraught with once stately – now dilapidated – grande houses adorned with various greek lettering; winding paths through greenery and 19th century brick facades full of college kids proudly wearing their future alma mater on sweatshirts, t-shirts, and flip-flops. It’s definitely “college,” through and through. But with a closer look, the small town of Athens boasts a vibrant local culture and an arts community. And there’s something about a college campus — the diversity of the student body, the youthful optimism of possibility, learning and sharing of ideas — that can be inspiring.
My fiance is a medical student at the university, so I have begun to split my time between New York City and Athens; going from the big city to a small college town never ceases to shock the senses, but the long drives through wide open spaces and green fields are something I look forward to each month. Naturally, I gravitated towards the town’s coffee shop, spending long days writing and drinking coffee while my fiance was off learning about bones and such. Donkey Coffee has become my haven in Athens.
I met with owner Chris Pyle in his eclectic office; located on the top floor of the cafe, it’s more a museum of his extensive music collection and paraphernalia — record players, amps, posters and vinyls in every direction. The idea for Donkey Coffee came about nearly twenty years ago, born out of Pyle’s love for community, social justice, art, and music, more so than coffee; “I wasn’t really into coffee then, but I was excited about the idea of the coffee shop,” he told me. “I like the idea of people in the community, working through issues of the day.” A stint after college as a missionary echoes his passion for community and social change, something which pervades every aspect of the cafe. Music is also clearly important to the Donkey community, fostered by Chris himself. There’s always a new band in rotation, and the cafe doubles as a performance space.
Chris’s wife Angie is the real “coffee connoisseur” of the cafe-owning duo. Together, they carefully chose a coffee roaster that reflected their values and worldview; Dean’s Beans, based out of Massachusetts, is “more of an activist than coffee roaster,” Chris explained. “We’re not just selling widgets. We’re selling something that we believe in, something that changes lives,” he says of the fair-trade beans they sell in-house, as well as their ethically made t-shirts and mugs. A tiny room separating two larger seating areas is full of flyers, stickers, and posters for various social causes; they call it the “justice room.” A poster reads: “We are the 99%.”
Pyle says that while he likes coffee, he loves running a coffee shop. His self-proclaimed inability to multitask keeps him away from the bar during busy hours, but he hires and trains baristas who clearly know what they are doing, and are consistently open to learning and growing in their craft. The menu features cortados and cafe cubanos, well-made cappuccinos, and single-cup immersions a well as drip-coffee.
Donkey celebrated their 10th anniversary with some new renovations: an updated espresso machine, outdoor patio space, and renovated upstairs apartments for rent. “I’m exhausted,” Chris tell me of this past year. And though he plans on a year of rest (he and Angie are also parents of two), his ideas for the future of the coffee shop are ever-evolving. “We never want to be snobby ,” he says of their coffee ethos — so much so that it’s in the Donkey manual; “there’s a huge difference between a music geek and a snob,” he says, and the same goes for coffee.
Two-stories large, multiple rooms, plush couches and outlets at every corner make Donkey the perfect college coffee shop. A staple in the community, local art adorns the walls, and locals sit amongst college kids and professors, all brought together by well-made coffee and good music. The cafe represents the idea that progressive ideas and great coffee can be found anywhere, even in an unassuming university town in Ohio.
Because, as Chris told me, “What it means to love each other in the community, is just as important as making a cup of coffee.”
Lovely video of Donkey, staff and owner Chris Pyle here.