OREGON — For several years, Jeanne and Uriah Carpenter would travel from coffee shop to coffee shop on Sunday afternoons to enjoy each other’s company, play a game of cribbage and catch up on what was happening in each other’s busy lives.
So it wasn’t necessarily a reach for the couple to think that a coffee shop might someday be in their future, although Jeanne was more convinced about the late-2017 purchase of the Firefly Coffeehouse in Oregon than her husband.
“I told Uriah what I was proposing and his response was, ‘I don’t think we drink enough coffee there to justify buying the place,’ ” Jeanne said. “I said, ‘Honey, that’s not the point. The point is it could be a new career for me.’ ” She said she felt she had accomplished everything she wanted to in the food industry and was ready to try something new.
The Carpenters celebrated their one-year anniversary of ownership of what they now call the Firefly Coffeehouse and Artisan Cheese in December 2018. They added the artisan cheese component because of Jeanne’s past experience as a certified cheese professional, sometimes referred to as a “cheese geek,” at Metcalfe’s Market in Madison, and her ownership of Wisconsin Cheese Originals, a company that planned cheese-related events and helped artisan cheesemakers market their products.
The coffee shop has added a cheese case filled with artisan cheeses from about 20 cheesemakers and features those cheeses in menu items and on cheese boards for customers. She also began buying fresh milk from Sassy Cow Creamery to incorporate into the coffee shop’s lattes and other menu items.
“The first couple weeks after we switched from grocery store milk to Sassy Cow milk was pretty awesome, as people who come in every day were making comments about how much better their lattes tasted,” Carpenter said. “All of the baristas were absolutely amazed at how the fresh milk foams.
“When people would ask why it tasted different, we would say because it is fresh milk from a local farm. The light bulbs went on for those people who had never been on a farm or seen a cow. That was nice for me because I’m passionate about agriculture, having grown up on a farm. I’m always telling the agriculture story.”
Carpenter hails from Belmont, where she learned the work ethic of being a farm girl while growing up and later attending nearby UW-Platteville. She earned an English major and journalism minor and started a career in print journalism. She worked at the Platteville Journal, at two weekly newspapers in Idaho and at The Country Today before going to work for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Before joining The Country Today, she worked as an executive assistant to owner Judy Faulkner at Epic Systems, the medical software giant in Verona.
Her agriculture background spurred her interest in promoting cheese when she took a position with the Dairy Business Innovation Center. She then moved on to her cheese-related positions with Metcalfe’s and Wisconsin Cheese Originals.
Carpenter said she and Uriah had been customers at the Firefly for about 10 years, so she saw the coffee shop grow to a 5,000-square-foot community hub.
“The beauty of being a customer here for 10 years before we bought it was we had a lot of time to think about what we would do differently,” she said. “When the time came that it was ours, we already knew how we would rearrange tables, what furniture should go where and how to make it more efficient and welcoming.”
The coffee shop is open Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The restaurant was open until 9 p.m. after the Carpenters first bought it, but she found out quickly that she would be subject to burnout with a schedule like that.
“We were having a lot of turnover with the staff when we were open until 9, but now that we close at 6, we have a totally stable staff,” she said. “And Uriah and I are able to have dinner together.”
The number of employees has grown from 12 to 19 in the first year, with eight of those positions full time.
“One thing that Uriah and I believe in is paying a living wage, so our average hourly salary here is $14 an hour,” she said. “That helps stabilize our workforce. Our employees can have a social life, enjoy their work here and not have to work another job. I think when you pay your employees more, you get the best out of them.”
The coffee shop features comfortable chairs, couches and tables where people can come and work or check their email with the free Wi-Fi. A 25-person-capacity meeting room in the back is almost always in use and a children’s play area occupies the youngsters who come in with their parents.
The breakfast menu primarily features breakfast sandwiches and bagels, while for lunch, customers can choose from fresh salads, paninis, wraps, grilled cheese sandwiches or soup.
Vegan sandwiches are also offered for customers who prefer not to eat meat.
Carpenter said because she uses fresh, local ingredients whenever she can, they cost a little more than frozen food off of a delivery truck, but she has discovered that customers are willing to pay extra for the higher-quality items.
“I hear it all the time, that that’s how food used to taste,” she said.
All ingredients are delivered twice a week and stored primarily in refrigerators rather than freezers.
“I think it tells you a lot about a restaurant when you see how much freezer space they have,” she said.
Uriah works full time as a software engineer with a Madison firm but helps at the coffee shop in the evening and on weekends. Jeanne said she wouldn’t have been able to embark on the coffee shop venture without Uriah’s stable income.
Jeanne has been a member of the seven-member Oregon Village Board for six years and will become the village president in April. She is running unopposed in the April election.
Their daughter, Avery, 22, works part time at the coffee shop and full time for a restaurant in Madison. She is working on getting certified as a yoga instructor.
Jeanne said when she and Uriah were visiting the other coffee shops before they bought the Firefly, they were able to glean ideas they eventually implemented in their own place.
“This has become a place to see and be seen,” Carpenter said. “It’s a social thing. We have about 100 customers who come in every day and a total of between 500 and 600 customers a day.
“We like to call it Oregon’s living room — that’s become our slogan. That’s what we’ve tried to make the Firefly become.”
Cami Broe of Oregon is a stay-at-home mom who said she meets at the Firefly with two groups of women throughout the week to have coffee and socialize.
“I used to bring my kids here, too, until they got into school,” she said. “It’s a fun place to come to.”
Amy Molina of Brooklyn said she sometimes works from the coffee shop and finds it to be a good place to meet friends and enjoy local food.
“Jeanne does a great job here,” she said.
Carpenter said as a village board member, she has a vested interest in making sure that Oregon is growing smartly, slowly and steadily. With that in mind, she wants her coffee shop to become the community hub for people to keep up on what’s going on in Oregon and provide a place for events that support the village.
Although Carpenter closed her Wisconsin Cheese Originals business, she still teaches cheese classes under the Firefly Coffeehouse brand — at the coffee shop.
“I have 11 classes scheduled for 2019 and they’re almost all sold out,” she said.
She teaches the classes with Sara Hill, a cheese professional who formerly worked with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (now Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin) and is now the national sales manager for Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point. Among the classes offered this year will be classes on wine and cheese pairings, sheep milk cheese, mixed-milk cheeses, cave-aged cheese and Wisconsin vs. European cheeses.
Carpenter said her five-year plan calls for her to open another coffee shop in Oregon. She doesn’t want to franchise the Firefly brand or open one in any other community.
“Oregon is a very fast-growing community, and we’re going to get competition,” she said. “Another coffee shop will open in town. That might as well be me.”