Personal Space: Lucy Bonds

A one on one conversation with Lucy Bonds

Over its 25-year history, a lot of things have happened at Lucy’s Coffee and Tea. Couples have gotten engaged here. PhD candidates from UAB have written the better part of their dissertations here. Owner Lucy Bonds even met her husband, Brian Kelleher, here, when he owned the former New York Bagel on the corner.

These are a few of the seminal life moments that have taken place against the background of a bustling, beloved Southside institution that attracts fiercely loyal customers who come for coffee, breakfast or lunch and tend to stay awhile, building a sense of community that would be hard to replicate. But ask anyone: It’s Lucy who makes it happen, with her love for the customers, her warm personality, and an iron-clad work ethic.

Meet Lucy.

B-Metro: Didn’t Lucy’s start out as a humble coffee cart?

Bonds: Yes. I’m from Alabama but moved to Seattle in 1989, where people’s interest in coffee was exploding. Then when I couldn’t take the weather anymore, I came back to Alabama, and I had this coffee idea in my head. But when I went to my hometown bank in Greensboro, Ala., the banker just flat out said no. I worked for a catering company for a while, started meeting a lot of folks, and I started thinking, ‘If I can’t do the shop, maybe my banker would say okay to a cart.’ And he did.

B-Metro: What happened next?

Bonds: I got the cart built and opened in February of 1993 selling coffee, tea, biscotti and muffins, and a couple of years later I could tell that specialty coffee was about to take off in Birmingham. When my spot opened up (across the street, at 2007 University Blvd.), I thought, ‘Well, if I don’t do it, somebody else is going to.’ So I went back to my banker, he lent me a little more money, and I was able on a very slim budget to open my coffee shop. I still have people who used to come to the cart who are still my customers now, after 25 years.

B-Metro: How would you describe the Lucy’s atmosphere?

Bonds: I get a very pleasant, warm feeling quite often in my shop. A huge number of my customers are people from the hard sciences at UAB, like the biochemists and microbiologists and PhDs. You’ll hear people speaking all kinds of languages in there, including Korean and Chinese and Italian. It happens frequently, and it makes me feel good about my position as part of the  UAB community and the community at large. What I enjoy most about it is being with my customers.

B-Metro: How did you beat Starbucks when they moved into your neighborhood, practically next door?

Bonds: Starbucks was more impactful (on our business) than people like to say. They say, ‘You shut down Starbucks!’ But I felt the impact, because they were on the corner, and for instance if you were staying at the Doubletree, you could look at the window and see them. You wouldn’t know that I was around the corner.

But the thing is, that’s when they overextended and were doing all that music stuff…and this corner is weird. They had no drive thru; there’s hardly any parking; and when UAB leaves at 5 p.m., it gets quiet down here. So they didn’t have a weekend-night kind of traffic. Ultimately I guess the numbers really didn’t work for them.

B-Metro: Any plans for expansion?

Bonds: Sometimes people have asked me, ‘Why don’t you have another one? Why don’t you expand?’ But in my mind, if I expand (to a second location) then I won’t know customers at either one of them the way I know them at my place. I don’t like doing this from a distance. I like being in the thick of it.

B-Metro: What’s the secret to making it in this kind of business?   

Bonds: You have to get up and go to work. My alarm still goes off at 4:30 a.m. every day. No one wants to get up at 4:30, but you have to because nobody else is going to go do it. I have great and wonderful employees, but I’m not going to call anybody up at 4:30 in the morning and say, ‘I just don’t feel like going into work.’ You just have to go and be there.

B-Metro: What would you want your customers to know about you?   

Bonds: I have no idea how to answer that. I feel like the customers all know me there. I’m there all the time, they get to see everything about me, and I don’t think I have too many secrets to hide.

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