Poet’s new owner makes changes, strengthens brand

Poets Coffee 2 family
Jeremy Crabtree, seen with his wife Lauren and their two children, bought Poet’s six months ago and has been making changes to the business with the possibility of expanding in the future. Photo/Joey Yother

COOKEVILLE – Poet’s Coffee turns 20 next year. Through those two decades, it’s become a hallmark business for Cookeville, consistently maintaining its popularity with local residents and Tennessee Tech students through several ownership changes.

Six months ago, it went through yet another change when Kelsey Taylor decided to sell Poet’s after five years to pursue other goals. She didn’t just sell to anyone. As Taylor and her family sought a buyer, their chief goal was finding someone they were confident would keep the longtime coffee shop alive and well.

And they did so by essentially reaching back in time. They sold Poet’s to Jeremy Crabtree, whose sister, Terri McWilliams, had owned the coffeehouse from 2001-2005.

So far, Crabtree has made changes to the interior, invested in new equipment and reduced costs to improve margins. He has plans to do more, all with an eye toward one day expanding the business and the brand.

“Basically we kind of lucked out with Ted (Terri’s husband) seeking interest on behalf of Jeremy around the time I was preparing to sell,” Taylor said. “Obviously with how well Ted and Terri ran the place years ago, it was a safe bet to place it back in the family.”

Taylor had bought the business in March 2009.

“I started out extremely young and needed to begin a new path in life this year,” she said, explaining her reason for selling. “I just felt ready to say goodbye and pass it on to another person interested in evolving it even more.”

Crabtree is no stranger to Poet’s. The Livingston native worked there four years while at Tech. He left the area after college for eight years to serve as an area director for Young Life, a Christian non-profit ministry to teenagers and college kids. Crabtree spent time in Memphis and Dallas.

Working at a non-profit may not seem like a place to incubate a future small business owner. But Crabtree noted he had to deal with budgets and cash flow with the non-profit. “Even though it was a non-profit, it still ran like a small business,” he said. He did take classes at Texas Coffee School. There, he learned more about business and best practices relative to a coffeehouse.

Since taking over ownership, Crabtree has made changes, seemingly small ones but ones that have improved margins, he said. He cut down the number of coffee drinks on the menu, which means some of the more exotic coffee drinks are gone. Crabtree said he has focused the drink menu on what sells the best, which improved supply management and reduced costs.

Shortly after buying Poet’s, he invested in a new water filtration system, grinder and brewer to improve the quality of the coffee being served. He also retained experienced staff. Kyle Martin, who has been with Poet’s for five years, stayed on as general manager. And his sister, an accountant, is in the background helping with advice when Crabtree needs it.

Poet’s went through some modest interior improvements to open up the space and give it a cozier, more welcome atmosphere. “I wanted to mature it as a whole, to make it more community based so the student to the business person feels comfortable here,” Crabtree said.

He used reclaimed barn wood along one wall and in the back. Crabtree also put two large handmade tables in the back to encourage people to share table space, something coffeehouses in bigger cities do.

The food menu will change, too. Crabtree plans on replacing the wraps and panini choices with premade sandwiches. He’s investing in a deli cooler to display the sandwiches. Crabtree said they won’t be ordinary, run-of-the-mill sandwiches. He has an eye toward the types of sandwiches served at Fido, a coffeehouse in Nashville’s Hillsboro Village that served sandwiches such as a smoked turkey and brie with aioli, basil-walnut pesto, lettuce and tomato on focaccia bread.

The Poet’s logo is perhaps one of the more subtle changes Crabtree has made. He redesigned the logo to freshen it up but also to remove “on the Square” and make it simply “Poet’s Coffee.”

That fits into his concept of potentially replicating the business plan in additional locations.

“I think we eventually want to get into roasting,” Crabtree said. “But I want to make sure we are solid here first.”

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