If independent coffee shops are opening in the Dallas area at a feverish pace -- and they are -- Ascension Coffee is the sprinter out front.
The anti-Starbucks company, headed by an Australian man who travels the world judging coffee competitions, expects to operate 10 Ascension coffee shops in Dallas-Fort Worth by the end of 2018. That’s more than double the number of shops it had by the end of 2017.
And that’s quite a jolt in a single year, for a company that founded its first coffee shop in the Dallas Design District in 2012 with no expansion plans back then.
Ascension’s ascension is founder Russell Hayward’s calculated attempt to capitalize on a caffeinated customer base in Dallas-Fort Worth.
“It was a total Starbucks world here,” Hayward says as he recalls the coffee giant’s grip on Dallas some 10 years ago. Being from Australia, the baristas Hayward knew “were treated like celebrities” -- like TV chefs in America are today. Where was all the good coffee in Dallas, he wondered?
It wasn’t until 2010 that a larger number of independent coffee shops started surviving (and sometimes even thriving) among nearly ubiquitous Starbucks stores in North Texas.
Fast-forward to today, and Dallas is in the midst of an indie coffee boom.
Downtown Dallas is a good place to look: “We now have more independent coffee shops than we do Starbucks,” says Shalissa Perry, chief marketing officer for Downtown Dallas, Inc.
Even the Starbucks stores in the neighborhood have been renovated, with changes to outdoor seating and weekend hours, to accommodate a more robust coffee market. Two of Hayward’s 10 Ascension stores are in downtown Dallas.
Hayward smiles, knowing he timed this just right. He hopes to grow Ascension into an $18 million company by 2019. “The Dallas market has exploded with coffee,” he says.
The original Ascension, located in the Design District, took about three years to become profitable, Hayward says. It was a growing neighborhood that Dallasites had to warm up to. Plus, parking stinks, Hayward admits.
The model for future Ascension Coffees sprouted from that first shop: Sell high-quality coffee. Offer customers a full food menu; maybe they’ll stay longer (and spend more money). Make it comfortable in there. Sell wine. Those are a few of Hayward’s secrets.
They don’t sound all that novel, but few Dallas companies were opening coffee shops that offered more than just good coffee.
“I wanted to be the coffee shop chefs go to,” Hayward says.
Chef Anastacia Quiñones, who works at the revamped Cedars Social, says she frequents the original Ascension, and she’s even visited the headquarters to taste African coffee beans, which she used for a charity event called Seeds of Africa.
When Hayward opened a second Ascension, at the Crescent Court in Uptown Dallas in spring 2016, he attracted a new coffee crowd. This one was more chic, more suited for a business lunch or a walk-and-talk coffee meeting. It offers both counter service and servers.
Iris Midler, the creator of a Dallas food festival called Chefs for Farmers, says she visits Ascension in Uptown near the end of a workday because she appreciates that there’s wine and charcuterie in addition to the requisite coffee.
Ascension then started percolating through Dallas: The next store opened in Thanksgiving Tower in downtown Dallas in April 2017.
Then a test shop called 84 Point opened in Addison in May 2017, positioned to see if a suburban audience gravitated toward a grab ‘n go sandwich selection, a farmhouse feel and a new name. And how about nixing the wine at this new Addison shop? No one seemed to notice.
The caffeine kicked into high gear during the summer of 2018: Along came an Ascension Annex at Fountain Place in Dallas in May; another at the Star in Frisco in July; and a pop-up at Willow Bend in Plano in July, with a full-service shop due in October.
In the remaining months of this year, Hayward and his team have expansion plans for a mega-store in Addison, near the Dallas North Tollway and Spring Valley Road; in West Bend in Fort Worth; and at The Sound in a corner of Dallas/Coppell/Irving.
“There may be another one that pops up in there,” Hayward says, not joking.
A case for coffee culture
In the 1930s, 98 percent of families in the U.S. drank coffee, a 1999 story in The New York Times asserts. That story is called “The World Before Starbucks,” and reminds anyone with a short-term memory that drinking coffee has been a habit since possibly the sixth-century A.D.
Those $5 lattes we drink in the U.S. come from a product grown, harvested and processed largely by low-income farmers in countries like Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, India and Uganda. It’s a $225.2 billion business in the U.S., says a spokeswoman for the National Coffee Association. And it’s booming.
In fact, 59 percent of the coffee consumed daily in the U.S. is considered gourmet, according to the 2017 National Coffee Drinking Trends Report. “Interestingly, younger people are driving this growth and consuming it outside of the home,” says a spokeswoman.
Hayward believes Dallas customers care about coffee quality, not just the fact that the Wifi is fast and the chairs are comfortable. In 2018, Hayward traveled to Brazil, Rwanda and Kenya, often shipping home beans he liked.
The only other person in the company who is allowed to roast the beans in Ascension’s Design District coffee lab is Aubrey Warden, who stands at a computer screen that graphs the company’s secrets for roasting. Ascension roasts about 1,600 pounds of coffee a week, and Warden has lifted thousands of pounds up above her head and into the roaster.
On Fridays, Hayward and Warden taste each roast, geeking out as they discover new fragrances and aromas. Hayward approves every roast before it’s sent to the company’s shops.
“Think molasses. Passion fruit. Cedar,” he says during a coffee cupping as he and Warden stick their noses no less than an inch away from a cup of black liquid. They also smell the back of the spoon and slurp the warm coffee with a whooshing sound.
“Every coffee has a signature,” Hayward says, in a way a sommelier might talk about an award-winning wine.
Along with a stout selection of coffees at every Ascension in D-FW, Hayward’s businesses serve food that he thinks makes the company superior to other local coffee shops. One upcoming menu item, for instance, is a pulled pork sandwich on a black bun. It’s odd looking.
“I saw this idea in Bali,” Hayward says of the dense, black bread.
Surely, an explanation is coming next. But Hayward thinks better of it. This bun, like his roasting techniques, is classified information.
“The key to that bun,” he muses, “is just don’t tell anybody how you did it.”