“Black people don’t drink coffee.”
The entrepreneurs behind Dark Side – a new coffee shop located in historically African-American North Huntsville – say they were given that (eyebrow-raising) advice 18 months or so ago, as they were getting started.
“And this is from very credible people,” says Devyn Keith, who in addition to being a Dark Side co-owner is Huntsville City Council president. “I think the problem for us was,” Keith, who is Black, continues, “we’ve proved that we liked the same things, in other parts of town.”
And coffee enthusiasts are liking Dark Side. The shop opened at 2007 Memorial Pkwy. N.W. in mid-November. Around 300 people turned out for the grand-opening, and Dark Side did enough business that day they ran out of food, the owners say.
Dark Side’s interior exudes a warm, casual vibe. On a recent afternoon, I sat down with Keith and fellow co-owners Jarius Palmer and Jaray Wilson, at a corner table there. Due to the pandemic, we all wore masks.
Keith, Palmer and Wilson are all from North Huntsville. They played little league football together, the whole nine. With development booming in other Huntsville areas, like downtown and the west side, they created Dark Side specifically to bring some revitalization energy further up the Parkway.
“Our heart was in North Huntsville,” Palmer tells me. “It was just a blessing to be able to put our resources together and do something a little bigger and different from what we’d been doing.” Palmer is an engineer by trade. Wilson’s background is in logistics. Dark Side’s fourth co-owner, William Clark, who happens to be Caucasian and attended college with Keith, is an accountant.
Dark Side employs a staff of around 12. And the owners also roll up their sleeves. “Everybody has a different skill set, so we just divide and conquer,” Wilson says. “We split it up as best we can by people’s strength, but if something needs to be done, we just all work together as a team and make sure it happens. And we all make coffee.”
Oh yes, the coffee. Dark Side sells a caffeinated array, including espressos, coffees, lattes and teas. Their signature libation is the Darkcino, which evokes a cappuccino/hot chocolate mashup. Coffee drinks start around $3.50.
The food menu centers on a variety of grilled cheeses, including sandwiches representing each Dark Side owner. For example, the “Clark” is sharp cheddar and American on sourdough. The Palmer is muenster and gouda on gluten-free bread, with a “Cajun honey” drizzle. The Wilson, gouda and cheddar on sourdough. And the Keith is comprised of gouda and muenster with a blueberry drizzle. “Mine is probably the most ‘extra,’” Keith says with a laugh, “which fits my personality.” The sandwiches are priced at $7.
The owners decided to focus on grilled cheese food-wise because, Wilson says, “it just takes you back to your childhood. Everybody from every culture can go back and remember having a grilled cheese and those memories.”
But coffee shops are about more than hot drinks and food. They’re about conversations friends have there and connections people make. On this day at Dark Side during our interview, there’s a tutoring session going on a couple tables away. Elsewhere in the shop, college students are studying. Another customers is grabbing a bite to eat before leaving for work.
“The coffee itself brings together everybody from different backgrounds,” Keith says. “Everybody needs to wake up and have some energy. But the location needed to be made around accepting culture, and people feel comfortable here.”
Wilson adds, “You see people come in, everything from suits to sweats. Some people are going to just grab a quick coffee and they end up staying 30, 40 minutes.”
For Huntsville residents old or new who’ve never ventured past Oakwood Drive or rarely do so, Dark Side is an opportunity to expand your local horizons. Keith says that’s already happening. “What we expected to be a certain type of crowd, it was the exact opposite. Diverse, from all walks of life. People from other sides of town.” And Palmer says, “The community in many ways has been more excited than we’ve been.”
During the pandemic, Dark Side’s capacity is around 18 customers. When things get back to normal, capacity will double. The coffee shop is open 6 a.m. – 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. – 9 p.m. Saturday and 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. Sunday. More info at darksidehsv.com and facebook.com/darkside256.)
The small shopping center that houses Dark Side is also home to other minority owned businesses, including soul food restaurant Betty Mae’s and authentic Mexican eatery Los 3 Garcia Taqueria. The H.C. Blake Art & History Center, home to local historian William Hampton’s evocative collection, is here too. North Huntsville Business Association is the anchor tenant.
“What we’re trying to do is what’s happening in other places in Huntsville,” Keith says. “Public private partnerships that draw individuals to have a place of comfort and enjoyment. And as we work through COVID, moving up the Parkway and integrating mixed use locations to allow people to feel comfortable to eat, sleep, play and all of the above.”
Keith says Dark Side is already planning on opening a second location, this one a drive-thru, further North on the Parkway. There, on a parcel of around five acres, ownership plans on developing a mixed-use project, featuring an intimate outdoor venue similar to The Camp at University Drive development MidCity. “The more stuff we bring to North Huntsville,” Wilson says, “people will support it. It just hasn’t been here, so it just makes you excited and to continue to do more.”