You never know what could come from a conversation that starts with, “Hey, you want to get a cup of coffee?”
Since opening its doors in 2012, Muletown Roasted Coffee has been one of the primary staples in downtown Columbia’s resurgence as one of those quaint, small town destinations worth visiting. Like most small business success stories, it all started with someone saying, “Are we sure this is a good idea?”
Over the years, Muletown Coffee has become a gathering spot for locals, some showing up during the early morning hours to greet friends and acquaintances before the work day, others to meet and conduct business. It’s a place people know they can be comfortable and feel at home.
The downtown staple has undergone a few changes over the last month, specifically in who is steering this slow roasted ship as Columbia enters its next phase of development. Founders Matt Johnson and Chris Wenineger recently parted ways as business partners, although the severance was amicable, with Chris focusing on family and life in his native Alabama. Matt has remained on as co-owner, joined by newcomer Chris Coyne, who took up co-ownership earlier this month.
Coyne, a 27-year U.S. Air Force veteran, comes to the business already having played a major role. At his “real job,” Coyne is a professional business leadership consultant, helping small businesses navigate the roadmap to success by making the right decisions and seeing the potential in what makes something worth trying, again and again. Being Muletown Coffee’s personal consultant made him a perfect fit for when the business needed a new leader.
“Muletown Coffee is a really special place for Columbia, and the sort of tribe that it has created is incredible,” Coyne said. “I’m really, incredibly humbled that they want me to be a part of this. In my career in helping people shape their businesses, to come here and make it a reality, to help take it to where it’s going next, I can’t say enough about that. How can you not succeed?”
As a Columbia resident since 2015, Coyne admits he was never much of a coffee drinker. Once immersing himself and learning about what Muletown Coffee means to Columbia, it didn’t take long before he was a convert. He also saw that it wasn’t just about serving up gourmet coffee, but about providing a place people can gather, see their friends and catch up before starting the work day, among other things.
“I never drank a cup of coffee my entire Air Force career, which is kind of funny when you think about it, but I had a friend from church who said I should come downtown and meet these two guys, and I soon became fast friends with Matt and Chris,” Coyne said. “This place just has a really great story about it.”
He also recognized the coffee shop’s reputation in downtown Columbia, serving as an early catalyst in its recent revival, and all the ways it can play a role in its future.
“I just love this city so much, and me and Chris have similar visions in how we want to keep being involved in the city,” Johnson said. “This whole square has been an adventure in watching it develop, even since I first got here in 2012 to what it is now. It’s nuts now, and even though I know we helped spur some of that, the next 10 years are going to be wild to see what all happens.”
Muletown Coffee has always been more than Columbia’s local roasting house, often donating to local fundraisers, hosting live music events and even releasing an album in 2017 featuring songs written and recorded by staff members. And a lot of it was produced in Muletown Coffee’s East 6th Street roasting house.
Johnson said he hopes Muletown Coffee can put more focus on how it can bring back the live music element, while also focusing on other ways to have a stronger connection with the public, such as offering tours of its roasting facility where people can learn how the Muletown Coffee is made, see the in-house recording studio and have another gathering spot just off the square.
“It’s really cool how all of this came together, and I think we opened at a time when the city was ready to be proud of itself, with the downtown bubbling up the way it has,” Johnson said. “We like that we’ve been one of those places that’s sort of given people that little nudge that we’re a cool city worth checking out, and what’s great is that even though we’ve seen so much growth, we’re still in the early stages of what we can bring here.”
Coyne shares this vision and excitement, only hoping for more ways Muletown Coffee can be involved in shaping Columbia’s future, while also providing a gourmet pick-me-up for the city’s early risers. Coyne sees his investment as not just putting money into a coffee business, but in something that has brought a future to downtown Columbia. To him, it’s about investing in the people, and the city he’s come to call “home.”
“Our coffee is great, there’s no doubt about that, but coffee is just the vehicle for something much greater,” Coyne said. “There’s a lot more to do here, for sure. I’m super excited, especially this time of year when the leaves are falling, it’s getting cool out, and people just need a place to hang to get out of the cold.”
Johnson shared his sentiments.
“We’re really excited to have Chris on board,” he said. “For us, the staff, we’re just so proud with his skill set and what he’s bringing. For me, him being on the team is going to do a lot for us in how we grow and organize everything.”