Coffee and Chocolate, 327 Union Avenue, Knoxville, November 2023
I remember visiting Coffee and Chocolate (327 Union Avenue) sometime around 2005 or 2006 and thinking what a perfect name for a place selling some of the best tastes the world has to offer. We moved downtown in 2009 and had several bouts of internet outages that left me holed up at Coffee and Chocolate writing more than a few articles for this website in the early 2010s.
We loved the briefly lived Coffee and Chocolate II on Clinch, which opened in 2013, particularly enjoying paninis on the porch. Eventually we would enjoy having Sharif (and wife Angelina) as neighbors during the pandemic. While I wrote about the second opening, I’d never done the kind of profile of Sharif I’ve done for so many other business owners downtown. With the business edging closer to twenty years downtown and a second location opening this week in Powell (3531 Emory Road), I invited him to tell us his story.
Harb is a common name in Knoxville, with many distantly related, many of whom own local businesses. Sharif said, “I come from a long line of business owners, and I took that trait, I guess. My father used to own Harby’s Pizza and Deli . . . and my grandfather on my mother’s side had a tailor shop right here in Market Square called “H.E.I.,” Harb’s Executive Imagewear.” I met Bishara (Bill) Harb, Sharif’s grandfather, in 2012 who told me he had no intention of “going home” unless he couldn’t keep the space, which, soon enough would become Scruffy City Hall. “We miss him dearly downtown. I would hang out at his store. Even when I opened Coffee and Chocolate, I would go over and check on him. His work ethic was amazing.”
My father’s side of the family is from Ramallah (West Bank), but he grew up in the Detroit area. My mother’s side of the family side . . . came from Ramallah to Knoxville. My parents grew up in the states.”
Sharif was born and raised in Knoxville, graduating from Central High School in 1995. He attended Pellissippi State and then UT, earning his undergraduate degree in Psychology. While in college he worked at U.S. Cellular during the day and UPS at night. “I wanted to help people. I wanted to get my Ph.D.” He said a combination of lack of patience and the expense convinced him to take a different path.
While still in college, he began making vegan chocolate and cookies, learning as he went, and taking them to work and his co-workers really liked them. That led to quitting his job and opening a Vegan Bakery next to his father’s business in North Knoxville as he realized he loved being his own boss. Initially operating as a wholesale/retail operation, he switched to wholesale only, selling goods to places like Nature’s Pantry, Three Rivers Market, Sunspot, Golden Roast, and Smoothie King.
He was also shipping to other cities and states and the cost of shipping (particularly in the summer, as the chocolate was prone to melting) proved prohibitive. He realized a different course was needed and decided to broaden his appeal by including offering non-vegan chocolate, reopening the retail and rebranding as “Coffee and Chocolate,” though still in the north Knoxville location. He said the name was very purposeful, “If I’m in any city in the world and I walked by a store that said, ‘coffee and chocolate,’ I’m going in. Who wouldn’t right?”
The business grew and a chance encounter with a customer led to relocating to Union Avenue. Nanci Solomon, current owner of Rala and then the owner of Re-runs which was at that time located adjacent to 327 Union Avenue dropped in and suggested he consider moving to the space beside her business in downtown. The owner of the building, Pat McCue came in and checked out the business, and introduced himself. “He’s a great person and so is Nanci. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.” He opened the downtown location in 2005, closing the original location and replacing a clothing store in the new.
By 2013 he decided to open a second location and he attended Barry Callebaut’s Chocolate Academy in Chicago. He started making chocolates for both locations, using the small kitchen in that location. He closed the second location and eventually began working out of Real Good Kitchen. It was there that he met Jessica Kranz, who was making macaroons and other great confections and she began to work for him. He has since added Alex Waters as a second baker to make the macaroons and baked goods. The Powell kitchen now supplies both locations.
The newest location at 3531 West Emory Road opened this week in the previous location of Free Reign Bakery. He said they had the equipment he need, though he did an extensive buildout to upgrade the location. You’ll recognize the products available there, though they will expand the product line there, but it comes with more than twice the seating space and a large commercial kitchen. Soft openings have indicated people are excited.
The business has grown to almost a dozen people and he has plans to continue growing. “We have such a great staff and we couldn’t do this without them.” He wants to roast his own coffee, produce his own chocolate, and continue making macaroons and other baked goods that he would supply to what he hopes will be chain of franchises. There could be additional locations in Knoxville if the right opportunity presents itself.
Even as he expands, the downtown location continues to generate more support each year and he’s very appreciative of the success he’s enjoyed there. “I think it is attributed to our staff and the growth of downtown . . . We are lucky to serve the downtown community and very fortunate to be open for this long. We are happy to be a part of downtown . . . We hope to serve downtown for many more years to come.