The first thing that hits the senses when arriving at the roasting location for Three Bears Coffee, which for now is the upstairs of owner Jeff Scheafnocker’s home, is the strong smell of coffee beans being prepared for bagging and delivery. The sound of the beans as they are stirred by the machine offers a mesmerizing hum as steam lifts upward like some holy smoke from a censer. For a coffee lover, it’s a portent of heaven itself. And it’s where I met Jeff on a recent morning to talk about the business and his interesting new plans.
With his trademark long black beard, which is showing a wisp of gray, Jeff cuts an iconic figure. He warms to a good story and his eyes crinkle to augment his ready smile. Still, as much as he enjoys conversation, he also enjoys the quiet process of roasting coffee and the relationship between the human roaster and the mechanical roaster. He loves his relationship both with the bean and with the people who enjoy his work.
The current focus on technology in roasting isn’t what interests him. For him, it’s about the centuries-old relationship of humans with the bean that so many love. He says his “interest in coffee is more personal. It’s about the people I sell to and the people I buy from.” He continued, “Three Bears has grown more as a function of demand and not my ambition.” He laughs at his own admission of low ambition.
Yet, it wasn’t the direction he chose early in life. Originally from Maryville, Jeff’s college studies centered on the music industry. He worked in Nashville for a spell and has always loved music. He took lessons from world-renowned flat-picking Maryville guitarist Steve Kaufman. He took a turn at building and repairing instruments. I don’t remember it, but I probably first saw him, as did some of you, working at Disc Exchange years ago.
It started with a grinder given him as a gift from his long-time partner Kristen Faerber. The hand-cranked grinder seemed to require good coffee and he set out on a bit of quest. Kristen knew a guy. Actually she’d met him when traveling in the west. An ex-patriot and refugee of the turbulent years with the American Indian Movement, he had settled on the Pacific coast about half-way down the Mexican coastline in the state of Nayarit. He brokered sales of beans grown in the state, which is the northern most point where coffee will grow on the continent. Jeff chuckled at the notion that this makes his the most local beans sold in Knoxville.
He bought large bags of the roasted beans and shipped them Knoxville where he would divide them into smaller bags and sell them to friends. It wasn’t unlike a drug operation, though it was legal. Jeff became interested in roasting and bought a small roaster. As he moved toward formalizing a business, he sought out the farmers in the region and found a cooperative with an importer’s license. The farmers there use a traditional dry process to remove the beans. It’s a slower process than the more common water processing and it can produce a wider range of results. Jeff likened it to tomatoes. One harvest might taste a little different from the next depending on weather and other variables.
He began purchasing his beans there and he appreciates the fact that no one came in and told the farmers how to do something they had been doing for generations, but rather, their business grew as demand grew. It’s the connection to those growers, taking their produce, roasting it by his personal methods, grinding it and serving it to others that gives him satisfaction.
Word of mouth grew the Three Bears brand. A larger roaster followed another. He began importing premium coffee beans from all the major coffee growing countries, including Bali, Brazil, Sumatra, Honduras, Rowanda and Ethiopia. His focus is still on sun-dried coffees, though some of the beans are water processed. He prefers the dry process because it employees more people and produces less polluted water.
Jeff gives great credit to the Market Square Farmers’ Market, which he calls “the cornerstone of my success.” He said, “One of the things I like about the Farmers’ Market is that people can engage the source of their food and he and others are able to engage the consumers of their products. In a sense, that appreciation of the give-and-take of producer and consumer is what led Jeff to the decision to establish a brick-and-mortar presence for the business just over the river at 1120 Sevier Avenue.
It’s less than a ten-minute bike ride from the heart of downtown and what you’ll find will be similar to the Farmers’ Market in that consumers will be able to engage with Jeff. It will be better, however, in the sense that customers can watch and learn about the roasting process. The roaster will sit at one end of the tasting room, clearly visible to customers. Bags of coffee will be available, as will hot and cold coffees.
While Jeff hesitates to call it a coffee shop – there will be no fancy coffee drinks, for example, there will be tables and coffee and, not only the smell of brewed coffee, but intoxicating smells and sounds of coffee roasting. It will be a place where people who love local products can gather and that’s important to Jeff. He says his own preferences run toward supporting local businesses and he feels it’s important to have businesses that “are of this place and based on the response from this place.”
3-G Architecture is doing the build-out of the new location. They designed Scruffy City Hall and other spaces around town. Jeff hopes to be open by late August or early September and, while he hasn’t set hours, he’ll likely have Monday/Tuesday, Thursday/Friday hours and coordinate roasting hours with business hours. While Three Bears has been mostly a one-person operation (with major, unpaid help, he points out, from Kristen – and help from Josh Wolitzsky at the Farmers’ Market), he’ll be bringing Ben Burris on full time to help with roasting and packing. He’ll also likely hire some counter help.
The former laundry building will also be home to Alliance Brewing and, potentially, to an interesting new restaurant. I hope to have more on both, very soon. The entire area of Blount Avenue and Sevier all the way to Island Home promises to be an interesting and increasingly vibrant retail and mixed-use corridor in the next few years as residences replace Baptist Hospital, apartments are built just outside the Island Home community and Suttree Landing Park is developed. Hop on your bike and get over there to discover this new development corridor.
And stop in to see Jeff at Three Bears or pick up some of his coffee at the Market Square Farmers’ Market. You can also buy his bag coffee through the week at Just Ripe, Three Rivers, Butler and Bailey and Whole Foods. You can find it by the drink at The Oliver in the Peter Kern Library, Just Ripe and the cold brew at Public House. Additional locations are likely in the near future. Check out Three Bears on Facebook. It’s the coffee I brew at home (Brazil Poco Fundo) and if you like good coffee, I’d bet you’ll like it, too.