Why Crozet began as a standing feature in the Gazette almost two years ago as a way to highlight the many reasons that we love our home. One of our first features was about Green House Coffee, so it seemed appropriate to revisit this unique community favorite as it was closing. We’ll have more about the new use for the space in a future article.
The last latte was poured, the last of Miss Wendi’s pumpkin squares cut, and the last California breakfast sandwich assembled. A steady crowd streamed through to say goodbye to Green House Coffee on its final day August 12. Owner Camille Phillips said she almost stayed away, but she ended up coming in for a time to thank the loyal customers who supported her during the beloved coffee shop’s 12-year run. “I didn’t want to be crying all day,” she said.
Phillips, who worked on and off as a nurse while running the shop, has gone back to full-time nursing at U.Va. Her profession influenced her vision for Green House Coffee as well as giving her some unique qualifications for making it successful. She was a young Air Force nurse in England when she first visited the quaint tea shops that her colleagues chose for their breaks. Years later, after moving from Florida to Crozet in 2001, she identified the need for a homey, low-key gathering place here.
“I waited for someone else to do it,” she said, “and then realized I’d have to do it myself.” After working in the cancer unit for a decade or so, she welcomed a change. As it turned out, for much of the time she did both, sometimes taking a 4 a.m. shift so she could be back in Crozet for the afternoon crowd.
She found the house she needed near the center of town and bought it from Daisy Sandridge, who had grown up there. George Hall, Daisy’s father, had donated the land across the street to the rescue squad. Phillips learned as much as she could about the plans for downtown Crozet, went to meetings, studied land-use issues, and found that her location was a good fit for mixed-use zoning.
With absolutely no commercial cooking experience, and little knowledge of renovation, she and her husband, Kurt Phillips, went to work. It took three or four years, she said: “Here’s my deal with Kurt: he’d do the renovation as long as he could buy all the tools he needed.” They did the work themselves at night and weekends, and Kurt learned many of the skills he didn’t already have by studying at the library. Things were sailing along pretty well until the economic catastrophe of 2008.
“We were financing the renovations with a home equity loan,” Phillips said. “Then, in 2009, banks were not only denying loans but actually taking them back.” Her loan disappeared, and she was determined to pay her bills step by step as she could afford it. That’s when a benefactor (one who prefers to remain anonymous) materialized with the offer of a loan, no strings attached. Meanwhile, during the delay, Crozet had gone from zero coffee shops to two, with the opening of Mud House and Trailside Coffee (now Grit). Still she decided to go forward, figuring that her vision was quite different from the local chains.
Finally, on November 17, 2010, all was ready. Phillips was a member of Crozet Baptist Church and many of the young servers were recruited from the youth group. Susan Collyer, the minister’s wife, pitched in from the start, baking brownies, banana bread and blondies; Dave Fafara of Shenandoah Joe Coffee sent a trainer to show the staff how to make coffee drinks; Goodwin Creek bakery began supplying bread for sandwiches; and Wendi Foster perfected her pumpkin squares, which became a crowd favorite over the years, as did the banana bread made from Betsy Sullivan’s mother’s recipe. There was a staff of 22, many of them young people who came in after school or on weekends.
“Still, we were scared to death,” Phillips said. It was an ambitious undertaking: a big menu, low prices, and hours from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. From the first hour of the first day, they were busy, and that’s continued. Her decision to bow out of the business was not because of a lack of patrons, who were steadfastly loyal and enthusiastic, but a step she needed to make to enable her to retire as a nurse. “Also, I was exhausted,” she said. She used to joke that if she fainted from exhaustion or had a heart attack from stress, she was in a good spot for medical attention, with emergency responders a few steps away. She always supplied the volunteers and staff with free coffee. Her space became a meeting place for moms’ groups, retirees and knitters. Children played in their special section. Susan Collyer plucked caterpillars from the milkweed outside, giving impromptu science lessons when the butterflies hatched.
There were other factors in Phillips’ decision to close. At first, hiring was easy: “If I had a particularly good employee, I’d ask him or her if they had a friend exactly like them.” This was a pretty good plan, and she’s fired only a handful of people over the years. Then the pandemic came, and she had to let her staff go. When she figured out how to open again, there were only a few available. Food prices went up, and so did the minimum wage. “I’m all for better pay for service workers,” she said, “but still, everything adds up.” She carefully counted the employees who have gone through over the years, some more than once, and found 128 names. “Some of them were mothers who also brought their children in to work.” One of her favorite parts of the job was seeing shy teenagers become competent and confident on the floor and behind the counter, including her daughter, who began behind the cash register at 12.
Besides changes in hours and staff, much has remained the same at Green House Coffee. Most of the baked goods, sandwiches, salads, winter soups and coffee drinks from the original menu remained over the years. She gave ice cream a try, but people preferred the baked goods.
There’s another chapter for the house and grounds. She’s leasing the space to long-time employee Valley Mobley and her brother-in-law, Javan Esh, who has a fried pie food truck business. Mobley will re-christen the spot “The Yellow Mug,” specialize in coffee drinks and pastries, and open this fall.
“She’s a good fit,” Phillips said. “I think everyone will find the same friendly service, and of course I’ll help her any way I can. She’ll take good care of the community.”
Although she’s been planning her exit for a while and is pleased with the transition, Phillips had a catch in her voice while reflecting on the closing of Green House Coffee. “I even googled how to react when closing your small business,” she said. “I found that it’s similar to losing a loved one.”
Phillips reflected on the intersection of her two professions and has never forgotten the words of the coffee supplier who immediately identified her as the right person to manage a neighborhood gathering place. “He said, ‘I can teach you how to make coffee drinks, but you already know how to take care of people.’”