Benevolence, Bourbon Barrels, and Beans
Tony Davis, owner of coffee shop Kentucky Knows, discusses what makes his destination visit-worthy and why he serves up kindness with his coffee and crafts.
What was life like growing up in Lexington?
We were really poor, like a lot of inner-city kids. My dad didn’t live with us; it was just my mom and my brothers. We’d have to get creative to make do, like putting sugar in our water for a sweet drink and putting our clothes on the gas stove to dry because we didn’t have a dryer. One day, I made weights out of a pole I found in the trash and concrete blocks. We’d tear the spokes out of bike rims, hang them on a tree, and play basketball. That’s how we entertained ourselves and dealt with life.
I had self-esteem problems, though. We had bowl haircuts and wore the same clothes all the time. We’d take duct tape from the school to tape our Trax shoes. It was hard to fit in, and we were easy targets for bullying.
From the time I was a kid, I envisioned getting out, not wanting to be defined by where I came from. I knew I could do better and be better than where I grew up, so I quit school as a teen and joined the Marines. I served in the Marines for four years and then spent another year and a half in the Army National Guard. All these things were the foundation for where I am now.
Who were your role models?
One was Lonnie Leland, my PE teacher in junior high. He’d always tell me to keep up the good work and that he knew I’d do good things in life. No one else did. He made a big difference in my self-worth, hope, and confidence. And that’s how I try to treat people who come in Kentucky Knows.
Years after that, when I was touring the grounds of Buffalo Trace Distillery, I wandered into a log cabin-turned- office, and a man welcomed me in, never telling me who he was. Years later, I found out he was the company president, Mark Brown. He showed me that, regardless of who you are, you have to give people an experience and make customers feel welcomed as people. I want to connect with everybody and make people feel good about themselves. Because you only get one shot at making a first impression.
Giving seems to be part of your DNA. In what other ways do you give back?
Because of how I grew up, I’ve gone to schools to mentor at-risk kids, and I hired some to work in my store when I was in Lexington. I want to give kids a sense of someone outside of their family believing in them. Kids sometimes need to hear from somebody who’s lived the way that they have. I’ve also welcomed homeless people into my shop for coffee and snacks.
For me, serving people is what it’s all about. I see it as being a modern-day Santa Claus: you need to keep that giving spirit alive, not just for one day or one week, but throughout the year.
You started Kentucky Knows as a craft business, making things like cutting boards out of barrels. When did you start to offer coffee? How long did it take you to perfect it?
We started thinking about selling coffee around 2013. We only use barrels from Buffalo Trace Distillery to store our coffee in, but when we first started selling coffee out of the distillery, customers said it tasted bad. I realized that, because the barrels weren’t being moved often, the coffee stayed dormant. I needed to fix that.
One day, I noticed a neighbor was using a compost tumbler to compost leaves for his box garden; it was rotating the debris around. He’d then allow the leaves to sit before tossing them on his garden. So I purchased a small concrete mixer and created a tumbler from it. Twenty-six months later, the coffee started to take shape—the concrete mixer allowed the coffee to tumble and be infused with notes of caramelized sugars, spices, vanilla, toffee, chocolate, and the tannin sugars from the oak. The combination of the tumbling, which aerated the coffee, and the mixer, which created an ambient temperature, allowed the flavor from the bourbon barrel to infuse into the coffee beans. The exact process I use is a secret, though, kind of like KFC’s spices. [Laughs]
What’s a typical work week like?
I’m here seven days a week; it’s just me and one person I’m mentoring. I get home about 9:30 every night, sleep five hours, and I’m back out. Four days a week, I’m delivering or making the coffee and wood crafts. It’s a lot of work, but I’m living the American Dream.
What makes Kentucky Knows a memorable experience?
When customers visit, I’ll come out from behind the counter and sit down with them to make them feel at home. We also always give free six-ounce cups of coffee to anyone who walks in, and every veteran gets a free quarter-pound bag of coffee. I think people are conditioned to think they need to buy something, but at my coffee shop, people can sit down and enjoy their free cup of coffee. If they want to buy more, great. But they are already giving back by visiting this dream of mine. That’s the magic. They’re taking a piece of my vision and hard work and taking it with them. And it is hard work. You’re going to fail. You’ll hear no a lot and get one yes. When you get that one yes, you can’t let go of it.
What does Kentucky mean to you?
I say this humbly, but I’m proud to be a Kentuckian. And here in our state, it’s about the experience. There’s a lot of folklore and stories, especially about the bourbon, and Kentucky Knows tells the story of Kentucky from this side of the bourbon barrel, one cup of coffee at a time.
Speaking of cups of coffee, what are your most popular flavors?
Our four best-selling in-store-only flavors are Bourbon Butterscotch Pecan, Bourbon Butterscotch Crème, Praline, and Crème Brûlée. The Kentucky Bourbon flavor is a big seller as well, especially when we have visitors from the Bourbon Trail, during Derby season, and around Thanksgiving. Chocolate Chipotle and Caramelled are also popular. We used to sell the cinnamon coffee mostly during the holidays, but people soon wanted it all year round.
What makes your coffee so tasty?
It’s all about the bean. That’s why we get our beans from the highlands of Guatemala and some from Honduras. The bean can also break down between eighteen to thirty-three days after the roast, so we make our coffee weekly, ensuring it’s never more than seven days from the roast. It’s hard to do, but it’s worth it.
What’s next for Kentucky Knows?
We’ve expanded. We’ve bricked the entire outdoor space next to the shop in 12,000 old Colonial Savannah bricks and made the new concrete look like hardwood flooring. There’s a full-view glass garage door in the front of the new area, an 1,800-square-foot patio, a to-go window, and firepits. On the patios, you can enjoy live instrumental music, and we have a 3-D movie projector for showing free movies. Later in 2020, we’ll add 2,500 square feet of space on the other side for our roasting plant so you can roast your own coffee or create your own wood craft.
I want it to be more than a coffee shop for people who come in. I want to inspire people through Kentucky Knows to follow their own dreams.
For more info, visit kentuckyknows.com