NEW PORT RICHEY — Right as rain, Bob Kushner arrives around 9 a.m. to set out his vinyl chessboard on an outside table at the East Main Street Coffee and Sandwich Shop.
“Six days a week, this is my front porch,” he said. “I like the coffee. I like the fresh air. I like meeting people.”
Kushner doesn’t go to the counter to order. He simply pokes his head in the door, gives the owner a wave, then returns to his spot out front.
Owner Brett Griest knows the drill and walks a mug of Americana coffee outdoors.
“It’s basically a shot of espresso with boiled water poured over it,” Kushner said, with a chuckle. It’s the first of two he will down during his morning stay and the closest thing to the espresso served by his Lebanese friends.
Griest knows that, too.
Whether it’s a simple pour over, cold brew, a chocolate covered espresso bean milk shake, or caramel latte, he knows his customers’ preferences.
“It’s nice to come into a place and be on a first-name basis with the owner,” said Adam Powers, a pastor at Sonrise Community Church, who meets parishioners there regularly. "He’s got the best breakfast sandwiches I’ve ever had, and the coffee is really good, too,”
Griest is making a go of it in an unlikely spot. His coffee shop is in a near-empty strip mall on the corner of Main Street and Congress, next to the Post Office and just inside the city limits. There’s a working barber shop next door and a food pantry around the corner, but store signs and vacant windows are all that’s left of businesses that have closed.
“If you told me three years ago this place would be empty, I never would have signed the lease,” Griest said. “But I’m doing okay. Business is up 30 to 40 percent from last year. I’m not going anywhere.”
His amiable, conversational nature and a neighborly atmosphere have something to do with his success, according to regular Jeanette Gordon.
She was Griest’s first customer and stops most mornings for a drip pour on her way to work. On Fridays, she splurges on a flat white espresso.
“It’s the kind of business you want to have in your neighborhood — one of those places you look forward to going to,” she said. "The blackberry jam and bacon grilled cheese is like the most amazing thing I’ve had, and I’ve had a lot of grilled cheeses in my life.”
The coffee shop is a later-life venture for Griest and his wife, Shannon, who moved from Minnesota to Florida for the birth of their first grandchild.
For 20 years he worked in the automobile service industry.
“I always had an espresso machine,” he said. He started roasting beans as a hobby.
He tested the waters with a $300 roaster in an incubator kitchen in Minnesota and started selling online. He and his wife, Shannon were planning to hit the festival circuit in a specialty food truck.
“It was supposed to be one of those exit strategies,” said Griest. “We moved to Florida instead and canceled the food truck.”
He had a booth in the now defunct USA Flea Market in Hudson and moved to East Main in April of 2017.
“I looked at downtown New Port Richey," he said. “I did traffic counts at 7, 8, 9 in the morning and saw that there was really nothing going on there then. Coffee is mostly a morning thing.”
The new location might have been a blessing, Griest said, adding that loyal flea-market customers followed him there. “With a smaller store, I really had time to perfect my recipes and learn what I was doing."
Griest honed his baking skills with the help of a fellow vendor at the flea market. He arrives at 4 to 5 a.m. each day to start baking — croissants, turnovers, muffins, cookies and perhaps a loaf of tomato basil bread.
“I don’t want to tell you how much bread I threw away because it didn’t rise or I wasn’t happy with it," he said.
It’s paid off. The specialty grilled cheese and pressed panini sandwiches are good sellers.
But coffee is the main attraction.
“This is in the top 10 percent as far as quality goes. I go for the best,” he said. He sells mostly organic/fair trade coffee harvested in third-world countries.
A $1 drip coffee is a running special.
Beans are roasted on demand, a process that takes about 20 minutes. Small samples are available for those who want a taste before committing.
Regulars like Ron and Shirley Segal said they chat Griest up when they stop for their monthly order — maybe a bag of Sumatra Mandheilig or the Kona variety Ron took a shine to when he was stationed in Hawaii.
“We’re on a fixed income, so this is one of our luxuries," Shirley Segal said. “It’s just the best coffee in the world.”
Note: East Main Street Coffee and Sandwich Shop is at 6526 Main St. in New Port Richey. Call (727) 232-2311 or go to www.emscs.net