“Well it all started because I was good at driving in the snow,” he says with a smirk. “You know how it is here. No one is out on the roads.”
But he was; he and his merry band of misfits were scooting around a vacant area of downtown. He spotted a rundown building with a broken window; curiosity got the best of them and they went inside to explore around.
After tinkering around inside for a bit with scrap materials, they were off, climbing back out that window to continue driving around the deserted snow-covered town. As he was leaving, he saw a crooked sign with the words “For Lease” hanging in a window. He jotted down the phone number; eventually he dialed it up, then “put on a suit” and convinced the landlord to rent the 2nd floor to him for $200 a month.
That was the beginning of the ever-evolving story of an artist collective / music venue / coffeehouse / roaster / and soon-to-be cafe according to one of its founding members, John Bryan (aka J.B.) of Krankies Coffee at The Wherehouse.
Rewind back, to earlier that morning and I am getting a different take on the beginning with another Krankies “original”, Dave Franklin. “I was up in Baltimore looking to create something similar, a commune-type space,” he recalls. John had called Dave to tell him that they had found a space and that Dave should come back home to Winston-Salem to partner up with them. Dave was hesitant, not sure if it would really pan out. But with time he packed up his life and headed back south.
Following his direction, Dave and I start walking down the newly built Research Parkway that connects downtown to Rams Drive. “I think better when I’m moving,” he had said when we first met ten minutes prior. He is guiding us and I’m pretty sure he has walked these streets thinking before. So there we were strolling along on a dreary morning, him trying to untangle a complex story, me with no real connection trying to follow along.
It is a story that began with a group of friends with loads of vision but without a dime between them. What they had lacked in wherewithal they made up for in resourcefulness. Their lofty goal: “to provide Winston-Salem and the world at large with a space to experience original and thought provoking art.” At least that is what it says on Wikipedia; Dave had sent me to the site. “You can find everything on Wikipedia.” he says. I laughed, “Did you ever think you would say those words?” “Um, no. But you’re probably on there too.” For the record, I’m not.
He continues. “No one used to come down to this side of town, so we were able to do our own thing under the radar,” The once vacant building eventually became known as The Wherehouse. It is a place that many remember fondly from their young “adult” years. “Oh I have some wild stories from that place!” someone later shares with a mischievous grin.
John, Dave and crew, along with a rotating roster of squatters turned residents, lived on the second floor. They sourced abandoned scrap materials from the derelict downtown block and repurposed it to make the old meatpacking facility livable. The first floor was eventually transformed into a raw performance space; a house party atmosphere always flowed throughout. It became a destination for artists and underground musicians from all over the world to perform, work and play.
Back then, John and Dave worked odd jobs by day, painting houses and doing carpentry work to help pay the modest bills; then they partied with visiting bands and artists by night. The place was full of creatives “doing all kinds of weird experimental things and making loud noise all hours of the day and night,” he remembers. They were growing this unconventional independent community of artists and musicians filled with innovative ideas. They embodied what Winston-Salem’s leaders wanted the city to be known for; they just happened to be doing it all without acknowledgment from the mainstream.
As a group they collaborated on each new project or challenge that popped up. They played off of one another’s strengths, taking turns as leader and follower depending on the task at hand. There were no bank loans or investors in the process; they avoided that scene and the debt. They were anti-capitalistic; they were rock and roll. “Plus we didn’t have any credit,” says Dave. It was just a good group of people committed to creating a solid space where they could create together. And almost twenty years later, it is how they continue to operate today; only now they have become an institution in the city, have built strong relationships with community leaders and are consistent allies of local artists and emerging entrepreneurs.
I asked him about the name, Krankies, the name that many people now associate with the business. He told me that they never intended to use the name. See ‘what had happened was’ after operating without any formal paperwork under the radar for a bit, the city caught wind and made them go legit. They needed to get insurance to make the operation legal, but before they could do that, they needed to register as a bonafide business. “J.B. and I were walking over to the Registrar of Deeds bouncing all kinds of weird names back and forth,” he laughs.
“Wait. You were trying to pick out a name as you were on your way to file?,” I ask.
It was just a formality he says. They had never planned to use it.
So his story goes, he is a night owl and John is the morning person. “He would come to pick me up to go work a job and he would have been up since like six in the morning, had his coffee, and already swept the front walk.” Dave on the other hand was barely awake and always cranky. And with that, a name is born.
Dave laughs about how they had to put a “Krankies” sign up on the exterior of the building to identify the business after the city “reminded” them that they could not sell booze out of a non-descript building. “People would get so confused. What’s Krankies? This is the Wherehouse. I told them to just ignore the sign. It was just something that we had to do.”
But as time went by, they wanted to figure out a way to better use the space by day. A coffeehouse then came to mind. “We didn’t have a clue what we were doing at first,” laughs Dave. “It was mostly thirty of our friends drinking coffee and smoking at the bar.” But they wanted to make a go at the coffee business in hopes of generating more income to support their main mission at hand.
Around that time Dave reached back out to another a friend who was still up in Baltimore. That friend’s wife, Gaby had experience working in a well-known community coffeehouse and they needed her help; “we had a job waiting for her” he said. After some debate on her part, she and her then-boyfriend ultimately moved and she has been steering the crew in the right direction ever since.
I later sit down with Gaby Cardall, an artist herself, to get her take. “We lived in that space where you see the glass block window,” she says with a smile as she points to the window that now marks the office of STITCH Design Shop. Cary Clifford, owner of Camino Bakery, even got her start working out of the building’s basement.
Gaby continues, “My husband was the last one in that group of guys to head back to Winston-Salem.” She remembers visiting the crew one day and walking up to the second floor living quarters to find a giant table full of food and water guns. “We had a big water gun fight and then went downstairs to a show.” It was after that that she says she knew she was ready to give this collective life a chance. “I’m the oldest of six kids; I’m used to chaos, people coming and going so it was nothing new.”
At the time, they were sourcing coffee from Maria’s, a well-known coffee roastery in town. Dave would always joke with Maria that whenever she was ready to get that coffee roaster off of her hands to call him. Well one day she did, and a deal was made with nothing more than a handwritten payment schedule and a firm handshake. With that purchase they also took over her fifty-plus wholesale accounts with their laundry list of specialty blends. This was a turning point for the business. They now had payments to make with the new roaster, along with a list of new clients to please; there was no looking back, they “just made it happen”.
Their partner Chris Leiser quickly took the reigns as chief roaster and continues at the helm today. In the beginning there was no fancy computer system gauging controls; It was just a vague series of directives like “when the flame gets this high and you hear this noise it’s ready,” A few of the guys tell me this same story separately; each time we all crack up. Chris especially.
Consistency as you can imagine was a bit of a challenge. But again, they “made it work”. John shares advice he received from one of their many mentors that really resonated with me. “It is better to focus on traction instead of promotion”. Clearly that is what they have done.
It is the little snippets like this that really tell their story. As a group, they tend to avoid overanalyzing change; instead, they just dive into each new circumstance and grow. After years of research, experimentation, networking throughout the vast coffee community and field trips to places like Guatemala, things have become much more advanced and both their retail and wholesale businesses have vastly expanded.
Dave shares that as much as they wanted to avoid the capitalistic system in their early days, they realized it was inevitable. But they recognize that we all have a choice in how we operate within that system. They choose to operate as “conscious capitalists” emphasizing responsible sourcing of beans and products. It is something they will now carry into the food they serve in their new café.
The crew is set to complete their first professional renovation of the building since opening in the late nineties. In addition to cosmetic updates, Chris receives an expanded roasting workspace with a state-of-the-art Joper roaster that allows him to be much more consistent and efficient, tripling output in his workday. The coffeehouse is also expanding into a full-service cafe. Both Dave and John were quick to tell me that it was the “younger generation” that was leading this new chapter in the business’ collective story. “It is their passion that is really driving this whole new expansion,” John says.
Mitchell had spent his high school years playing gigs at The Wherehouse, returning after college for some work between phases of his life. As Dave tells it, Mitchell went to college so he had a better understanding of what structure can do. He added another element that really added value to the business. Mitchell had experience in restaurants and bakeries; he understood how things should flow. “We really couldn’t afford to pay him well or lose him.” So they offered up a working partnership instead.
In addition to his work with Krankies, Mitchell had been working with friend Mark Gravel hosting slow food dinners and pop-up food events over the years. Both are extremely passionate about food culture and experimentation in the kitchen. Mitchell has even received an Echo award from the Winston-Salem Foundation for the social capital he helped build through these meals and through sustainable education work.
Mark, and his vast collection of shorts, has conceptualized food projects in Brooklyn, San Francisco, and the Carolinas as well as helped new ventures get up and running from coast to coast.
Sitting at a picnic table that afternoon, I listened to Mitchell and Mark talk enthusiastically of pickling, preserving, charcuterie, farming and making- from-scratch. They tell me that this new kitchen at Krankies is really a much-needed tool that will allow them to do all of these things on a greater, more public scale.
This new Krankies collective 2.0 with its steadfast focus on building community also runs a three-acre urban garden in historic West Salem, selling produce to local restaurants. Looking long-term they are filled with ideas from more retail projects to agritourism.
In the next week, they will be in full swing serving classic breakfast items, a “workingman’s lunch” and eventually, original bar snacks to complement their new cocktail program. The overall menu concept is based simply on “affordable”, “approachable”, “good tasting” food, says Mark; “you can expect it to be scratch-made and intentionally sourced”. Their hope is that after eating at the cafe, customers will leave inspired to cook more at home and maybe even plant their own garden too. “It is what used to be the norm in this area. It is what was done before; It was just lost,” adds Mitchell.
For them, this is more than just opening a cafe at Krankies; they want to contribute to a good food movement here in Winston-Salem. Their passion is contagious; I can’t help but imagine that it was this same type of passion that set the wheels in motion for Dave and John twenty years ago.
Earlier I had asked Dave what helped him stay committed to the collective cause as he navigated an ever-evolving business with his crew. He says that just like with any relationship, there are high points and struggles. It is easy to look from the outside at a couple, or at a business, and only see happiness and ease. But that is almost never the whole story. (Actually “It’s all bullshit” is what he specifically said.) Because in life the real story includes good intentions mixed with screaming fights and mistakes, which can lead to more stability and security, which leads to the next wave and lull. It is about staying with it through the good and the bad.|
Each and every one of them point to “the good people they get to work and grow with” as why they stay committed. And besides, says John, “what else would we really want to do.”|