SouthPark’s newest craft-coffee shop is, in fact, one of Charlotte’s oldest.
by Liz Logan
The art of craft coffee has been making its way around Charlotte, arguably, since NoDa’s Smelly Cat opened in 2000. The Friends-inspired Central Perk atmosphere gave way to Central Coffee in 2009 and, in 2011, third-wave coffee descended upon the city via Not Just Coffee and other shops featuring pour-overs and latte art in virtually every neighborhood.
Before all of this, there was Summit Coffee, quietly serving a loyal crowd in the heart of Davidson. For 23 years, the shop has resided in a 19th-century building that houses Summit’s “Basecamp” location. Outside, the brand’s signature teal adorns windows, allowing passersby a peek into the newly renovated space where rustic wooden shelves sit above a row of round tables and French bistro chairs. Bags of coffee line shelves, emblazoned with Summit’s signature teal-and-white logo, the minimalist mountain a nod to the brand’s premise of taking in the outdoors and allowing oneself a peak experience in both life and coffee.
This design throughline will follow at Summit’s eighth location at SouthPark’s Piedmont Town Center, which is slated to open Oct. 1. But while there is clear Summit branding and a loose template for design, each space has its own unique atmosphere, blending into its community. CEO Brian Helfrich calls Summit’s SouthPark space “remarkable but approachable,” with upscale elements while staying true to the brand.
The tiled coffee bar was conceptualized by Helfrich’s wife, Tyler. Each Summit location has a tile design unique to its neighborhood. Hues of navy elevate Basecamp’s bar, while sporadic (yet intentionally placed) coral and green floral tiles line NoDa’s counter. SouthPark will have its own rendition that will reflect a more upscale design scheme, something Tyler has worked to develop alongside franchisees Jon Cowles and Brett Cohen.
The two partners have worked together in the financial industry for years, both commuting to SouthPark from Davidson, where each has his own ritualistic relationship with Summit. Cowles and his wife, Betsy, have lived in Davidson for 20 years, making a habit of hitting up the coffee shop on Saturday mornings as they peruse the farmers market. Cohen and his wife, Susan, often stop in for wine and live music after dinner.
While working from home in the early days of the pandemic, Cohen and Cowles saw Summit’s announcement for franchise opportunities on social media, and they knew this was their chance.
After scouting locations in South End, Dilworth and Myers Park, nothing seemed to fit their vision. Something kept driving them back to SouthPark and their ultimate landing spot on Piedmont Row. Having worked in the area for over a decade, the two saw a need for accessible local coffee and a gathering space.
Visions began to form of SouthPark’s business community stopping in on the way to work, settling in for meetings by day, or winding down with wine and beer after work. Local families could gather with a safe space for children to play. They signed a lease and began intensive training, not just as Summit owners — but as baristas.
Being well-versed in Summit’s coffee offerings was one thing, the partners joke, but learning how to make lattes — complete with intricate, steamed-milk designs — was another. Running an espresso machine is an art — beans are dialed in for the perfect blend of brightness, conveying the notes the roast intends. Milk (be it dairy, oat or almond) is steamed to around 140 degrees, then poured gingerly over the espresso with a slight flick-of-the-wrist to create shapes atop the creamy, quintessential coffee-shop beverage.
“Trying to make designs was hilarious,” Cowles says. (Cohen can make a heart, though Cowles still struggles.) But the two trained to better understand the skills and passion needed in the industry.
The momentum of recent Summit openings in NoDa and Huntersville, as well as the Triangle area and a second Asheville location, has created an excitement and anticipation of what Summit will bring to SouthPark. The opening of the new location helps further Helfrich’s vision of becoming the highest quality coffee purveyor around — possibly even in the U.S. A beautiful atmosphere, a community environment, and expertly crafted coffee and baked goods — with an upscale line of wine and beer — are making their way to the neighborhood, bringing with it a local flair and big dreams. SP