Sarah Colson developed a love for making coffee while working at a local coffee shop in college, leading her to start selling cold brew from her gym “just to see if I was any good at it and just to have fun, basically.”
Turns out, she was — and people loved it.
“I was having people hand me a $10 bill for a small cup of coffee, and I would say, ‘No, no, no. It’s $2, I don’t need the money I’m just doing it for fun,’” said Colson. “I had this one guy who said, ‘I need you to succeed at this because I love your coffee, and I need you to keep making it,’ and I was like, dang, OK, I guess I’m alright at it.”
In Colson’s words, “it kind of snowballed from there” and her and her husband began thinking of opening their own coffee shop. Financially, a standalone brick-and-mortar store was out of reach, so they started thinking of alternatives — landing on the idea of opening a coffee bus, and began searching for the right one to convert.
Then, Colson’s friend sent her a listing for a 1957 Airstream trailer that was already converted to a cafe. The problem? It was all the way in California.
Not wanting to let it slip away, the trailer was towed all the way to Johnson City last January, and Blue’s Brews Airstream Cafe — named for Colson’s 6-year-old Great Dane, Blue — was born. And in March, Blue’s Brews opened up shop in the parking lot of Frannie’s Vegan Cafe in Boones Creek.
Just days later, however, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee issued a safer-at-home order, leading many businesses to close their doors. Blue’s Brews remained open though, by virtue of its to-go operating model and, of course, being located outdoors.
“It was horrible,” Colson said that moment. “I doubted everything. The past year and a half, I have worked through more self-doubt than I ever imagined would be an issue. I was so excited, and it was so cool to see this community come together and just love us with their dollars — there’s a huge difference between someone saying you should do this and someone handing you money, saying we believe in you, we want your coffee and I know this is really scary and hard but we’re still going to spend our money here.
“It was simultaneously terrifying and unbelievably humbling,” Colson continued.
Despite the doubts, and the unknowns surrounding the virus, Colson said “I put my work shoes on and washed my hands and started making coffee because there was nothing else to do.”
Things were moving along well until Colson was infected with COVID-19 in July and forced to shut down her shop for two weeks, though she said fortunately none of her employees were sickened as they had all began wearing masks at work by that point.
“It was really hard trying to figure out, OK, so this is a pandemic and we believe in being as cautious as possible, and at the same time we still have to pay rent, and we still have to pay our loan payments and we still have to pay our employees and we still have to buy (coffee) beans and we still have to do all these things, so it’s been really interesting navigating between how to be responsible and also how to keep your doors open,” Colson said.
Despite the challenges they faced in 2020, they survived the year: “If we can (survive) in 2020, then chances are we’ll be OK,” said Colson.
In the first month of 2021, Blue’s Brews relocated to the Cookie Crate’s parking lot at the intersection of West Market Street and John Exum Parkway, where they can capitalize on passing traffic at one of the city’s busiest intersections. Looking back at the past year-and-a-half, Colson thanked the community for its support throughout the pandemic, and said she was looking forward to the day things are, more or less, fully back to normal.
“That’s kind of exciting for me because when that day comes, we’re really going to be in the running — we’re really going to have to get people here, not just because we’re outdoors and to-go, or because people are like ‘She started a business in 2020,’ but because we have the best coffee in Johnson City,” Colson said. “That’s going to present a whole new set of challenges, and I’m excited for that day.”