I plop down in the sturdy wooden chair, prop my head up in the my arms and let out a long sigh. Week two was finally coming to an end and this was exactly where I wanted to be. Strings of tiny lights twinkle overhead and soft jazz songs play in the background. Donkey Coffee and Espresso is one of my favorite places to be to get the best coffee and live music.
My friends and I ask each other about the first days of class. We laugh and joke, complain and rave about new professors and fall into the old routine. We haven’t seen each other since before winter break and the spur-of-the-moment meetup is a welcome relief.
After a moment I go and order my drink. Since its already 7:30 in the evening I decide on a vanilla chai latte, in a glass mug of course. I treat myself to a vanilla almond biscotti as well. After a bit of small talk with the cashier, I return to my friends, mug in hand. One of them is making flashcards, flipping them over and over again. Another is flipping pages in a textbook, skimming and jotting down anything that might be important. A girl at the table next to me unravels her scarf and grasps her cup of tea, warming her fingers.
The sounds surround me and replace the thoughts of lectures and homework. I pull a glossy magazine from my bag and open it to one of the dogeared articles and start to read. Eight o’clock rolls around and someone steps up onto the small stage at the back of the room. A few notes sing out from the piano, one is misplaced and the player begins again. He falls into a perfect rhythm and begins to sing, quietly, hesitantly. All at once, he is both afraid of being heard and afraid that no one is listening.
I hear him sing the first few lines and turn in my chair, the words are familiar and I match them to the tune of the piano. I recently heard this song, in the movie theater. “City of Stars,” I remember the name and hum along. The song is about dreams and the melody is equally dreamy.
He finishes his set of songs and another person hops up on stage with a guitar. Open stage night is the best at Donkey. It’s the perfect time to relax and allow your focus to stray from the stress of school. I love listening to the original pieces that people have written and chosen to play here. It’s always lively and full of people, sometimes it’s hard to find a spot to sit and you end up in a cozy little corner with a tiny table barely big enough to hold a laptop.
Around 10 p.m. I begin to pack up my things and finish the last bite of biscotti. As I push through the door and onto the rainy streets of Athens, a little bell signals my exits. The smell of brewed coffee clings to my hair and clothes. I’m already planning when I will return.
Pulling your first all nighter is a right of passage for college students. From the copious amount of energy drinks you consume, to the way your eyes seem to melt into the back of their sockets, to discovering that your laptop totally makes a great pillow after 4 a.m. Nothing screams college more than busting out an eight page research paper in the back of a coffee shop while the rest of the world catches some Z’s.
But what about the people who support those late nights? Someone has to make that triple espresso that you have IV’d to your arm, and play the latest acoustic jams that mellow out the early morning.
We hate to see them but we love their work. Their presence not only signals third shift is about to begin, but also the realization that you probably shouldn’t have procrastinated so much on your projects. They’re the brave men and women who make it possible for you to pump out a semester’s worth of work in a single night. Whether you need some early morning fuel or a late night pick me up, they have your back. They’re the early risers and night owls who work in the coffee shops and diners in town.
At Ohio University, three local spots are known by everyone. Donkey Coffee at 17 1/2 W. Washington St., Brenen’s Coffee Cafe at 38 S. Court St. and Union Street Diner at 70 W. Union St. have been servicing the Athens crowd for 13, 16 and five years respectively. Customers are guaranteed to always be greeted by a smiling face, even if their own face isn’t so lively.
Brenen’s Coffee Cafe
Brenen’s was founded in 2000 and has been a huge hit ever since. Pittsburgh native Erin Pogue, a senior studying strategic communications, has been working at the cafe since fall 2013, her freshman year. Pogue works a varying schedule of opening and closing shifts but definitely prefers to open.
“I think the best part about an opening shift is how calm Athens is at that time,” she said. “It’s usually before most other students are getting their days started so you can really notice how peaceful Court Street can be walking into work.”
Beautiful scenery aside, getting in at 6 a.m. throughout the week for work still isn’t a fun time. When asked about the downside of opening, Pogue commented:
“The worst part is definitely waking up. Luckily, working at a coffee shop makes it easy to get some caffeine in me once I get in.”
There are some saving graces that come with the sunrise shift though. Pogue says she loves seeing the regulars who come through every morning, along with her coworkers.
“We have a great staff working at Brenen’s. It makes a big difference when you have a great team working with you and keeping things running smoothly when you work together. Going into work is always easier when you get to work with friends and have a lot of fun while getting the job done.”
When asked if she’s ever witnessed anything weird or noteworthy during her closing shift, Pogue had one oh-so-Athens story.
“You never know what you’re going to get when you have a closing shift on a busy weekend,” she said. “A guy came in off Court Street in a falling-apart costume, couldn’t manage to form full sentences when trying to tell us his order, then grabbed a baguette off the counter and ran out before we even had time to finish his sandwich. Luckily he had already paid!”
It’s like Bobcats say, “Athens happens.”
Donkey Coffee and Espresso
Six hundred and sixty three feet down the street and around the corner, just off the intersection of Court Street and East State is another Athens favorite, Donkey Coffee and Espresso. Open since 2003 and ran by Chris and Angie Pyle, Donkey has successfully been serving the locals “caffeine with a conscience” and has a long history of giving the town a space to be creative.
Moira Snuffer, a sculpture and expanded practice senior from Columbus, has been working at Donkey since June 2015. She mainly works the opening shift, which means crawling out of bed and getting into the shop by 6:30 a.m.
Her favorite part about opening is getting a chance to just be by herself and start the day at her own pace.
“Opening is kinda nice because you’re by yourself and it’s this time to have your space,” Snuffer said. “It’s a nice way to start your day—to be here by yourself and do monotonous work.”
While nothing too crazy has ever happened during her closing shifts, she did have a story about an unexpected interaction this year on halloween:
Union Street Diner
Then there’s Union Street Diner, the go-to spot for anyone suffering from the late night munchies. The 24 hour mom and pop storefront has been in business since 2011 and caters to all walks of life, offering spacious seating, fair prices and friendly faces every hour of the day.
USD has personally reenergized me on multiple occasions (the BLT and pancakes are tier 1) and any place that offers milkshakes at 5 a.m. deserves a head nod.
My last visit to the diner introduced me to Ashley. Ashley has officially been working at Union Street Diner since August of this year, and strictly works third shift. Though working so late can be brutal, the shift time actually fits her overall schedule perfectly. Ashley and her husband are parents to a beautiful two-year-old so the odd times lets both of them work without the need of a babysitter. In regards to her coworkers, she loves them.
“We’re all very laid back. It’s a family here” she said.
While Ashley never went to college, she did become a certified nursing assistant when she was a junior in high school. When it comes to the few things she doesn’t enjoy about her job, Ashley simply can’t stand when students come in and vomit.
Athens locals and Ohio University students alike turn to Donkey Coffee and Espresso to not only get into a caffeinated overdrive, but also for a strong sense of a diverse community in Appalachia’s favorite college town.
Many coffee shops in Athens are similar: typical menu, some treats for those with a sweet tooth. Donkey Coffee and Espresso, however, is in a league of it’s own. The atmosphere itself just radiates calm and a sense of tranquility.
When you walk into Donkey, the first thing you notice is the lack of noise, save for those nights they have bands or poetry readings. The coffee maker chugs along and the rooms smell like baked goods and a spice that you can’t quite put your finger on. The coffee list covers everything from teas, to foreign concoctions, to frilly creations that only a man in a kilt and half shaved head could perfect.
The baked goods are out of this world. Mainly organic, some made in house, they are perfect snacks for a college kid who has no actual time to get dining hall meals. The seats are like being back at home: just broken in enough to make them possibly the most comfortable seat to catch up on the work that all students procrastinate.
The people who frequent Donkey Coffee are usually the same. They are the people who are friends with Kenny, the man in the kilt. They are college students looking for a quite place to do work away from campus but close to Court Street. They are the people who live in Athens, not just frequent to bars. They know the ins and outs of Court, the best places to find adventure, and the best place to get a good, organic cup of coffee.
Donkey is my place of calm. When I need a good cup of tea like my mama used to make and a chair that feels like home, I go there. It is like my hug from home without having to make the drive.