Don’t tell Dave Damone that you cannot find a good bagel in the south.
Within a year of purchasing the Rocky River Coffee Company in 2007, the native New Yorker held a free bagel day at his shop in Harrisburg Town Center to disprove, once and for all, the local fallacy that “a bagel is a bagel.”
To make that happen, he reached out to his father, who still lives on Long Island, and asked him to swing by a local bagel shop. Though they could not ship New York bagels to North Carolina, the owners were kind enough to recommend another local business, Always Bagels of Bohemia, that could accommodate him.
That company par-bakes its bagels – a process in which they boil, partially bake and then freeze their baked goods for shipment – allowing customers to defrost them at their leisure and finish the baking process, guaranteeing an always-fresh product.
Today, more than a decade after their introduction, bagels are one of Mr. Damone’s best sellers. He estimates that he sells more than 2,000 of them every month, adding that he offers plain, sesame, cinnamon raisin, everything and whole wheat varieties, as well as the occasional seasonal flavor, such as French toast and country apple.
“Everybody was like, ‘A bagel is a bagel,’” Mr. Damone recalls. “That’s literally what they were saying because they don’t know. So, I did a free bagel day so everybody can understand the difference of a New York bagel and a bagel you buy down here.”
He has made other modifications as well since buying the business from the original owners, who opened Rocky River Coffee Company in 2004. In addition to an assortment of freshly roasted coffees, including the popular Carolina Morning house blend, Mr. Damone offers a dozen varieties of Blue Bell Creameries ice cream, breakfast sandwiches, black-and-white cookies, as well as paninis and other lunch menu options.
He’s also expanded the footprint of the coffee shop itself, taking over an adjoining suite to increase his overall square footage to more than 1,900 a few years back, in order to accommodate growing demand from customers.
“I think one of my strengths is I know when and where to make adjustments,” Mr. Damone says. “I’m a behind the scenes guy, a nuts and bolts guy – always have been.”
Ministry & Marketing
He’s also someone who didn’t necessarily follow a traditional path to entrepreneurship.
Mr. Damone switched majors from business to ministry while attending Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and then served as a youth pastor in Florida after earning his undergraduate degree. He eventually found his way back to Virginia, accepting an entry-level position at World Help, a Christian humanitarian organization that serves the physical and spiritual needs of those living in impoverished countries. He advanced through the ranks and was the nonprofit’s Vice President of Marketing and Advertising when he decided to completely switch gears and pursue a childhood dream of owning his own business.
He also knew that he wanted to open either a pizza parlor or a coffee shop, but was not yet convinced on which one to pursue. “We grew up on good pizza …” he explains, pointing to his New York roots, “but coffee wasn’t really a big deal for me until I went to college.”
He would spend the next year researching different business models and potential locations. After discussing his plans with his wife, Rachel, they agreed that their future business would be located in one of two places: Tampa, Florida, or the greater Charlotte area.
“We both love the beach,” Mr. Damone says, explaining the first destination. “All we knew [about Harrisburg] was that there’s a beach three hours that way, and mountains about an hour that way. So we were like, ‘Hey, that’s cool.”
The clincher, however, was when they decided to check out the Rocky River Coffee Company itself for the first time, once it was put on the market.
“It was one of those things,” he says. “We walked through the door and I knew it was the place.”
Keys To Success
Mr. Damone said his keys to his success are to always offer high-quality products and excellent customer service. And while he did make considerable changes, to both the shop itself and its menu, he also recognized that he should not tamper with certain items.
Most notably, he continued using the same roasting company, Kaldi Gourmet Coffee Roasters out of Wilmington, to supply the half-dozen different blends offered daily at his shop. He points out that Carolina Morning has been the house blend since the shop’s conception in 2004. “It’s a favorite,” he explains.
Where he strayed was by transforming the Rocky River Coffee Company into a destination that catered to more than just the passing coffee aficionado. On any given day, his shop is filled to the brim with customers of all ages, some stopping in for a quick cup of joe and a breakfast sandwich, while others camp out on tables to talk business or simply catch up.
“We’re where community happens,” says Mr. Damone, repeating the phrase that appears on the T-shirts of his employees and a billboard inside his shop. “It stems from my hardcore belief in God, and just being all things to all people.
“We really want to be a place where we welcome everyone, no matter what, and provide that second home to people,” he adds. “And what better way to do that than over coffee?”
ROCKY RIVER COFFEE COMPANY
- Address: 4350 Main Street, Suite #109
- Website: www.rockyrivercoffee.com
- Facebook: Rocky River Coffee Co.
- Instagram: @rockyrivercoffee
Hours of Operation
- Monday-Thursday: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.
- Friday: 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.
- Saturday: 7 a.m. to 10 pm.
- Sunday: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.