Rise and grind: Meet the night owls of Athens who make late night cram sessions possible

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.

Economics senior Mari Otero looks over her Econ notes shortly after 2 a.m. at Union Street Diner

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.

Erin Pogue preps the coffee machines
Erin Pogue preps coffee machines during a slow period during her shift

“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.

Moira Snuffer, opening Donkey Barista, is all smiles, even at 7 a.m.
Moira Snuffer, opening Donkey barista. All smiles, even at 7 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.

You can’t win them all.

Third year computer science major Justin Mosley takes a break from studying for his software tools exam
Third year computer science major Justin Mosley takes a break from studying for his software tools exam

Caffeinating with a conscience at Donkey

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.

Readheads gone wild: Athens addition

With the semester officially half over, a little family time is a necessity. Maddie and Spencer (who are not siblings I promise) live in Indiana and decided to come stay the weekend for a little family get together. And as college students/recent graduates, food is obviously close to their hearts. So on this edition of “Redheads Gone Wild,” here is us taking on Athens

At Donkey Coffee, you can add a dash of politics to your fair-trade coffee

“Would you like a side of politics with that?”

Athens, Ohio is abundant in businesses that mix their service to customers with political discourse. From Avalanche Pizza’s caricatures of presidential candidates to Little Fish’s “No Fracking Way” beer brewed with all Ohio ingredients, Southeast Ohioans are accustomed to seeing politics on the menu.

A politically-minded Athens business that stands out to me is Donkey Coffee, who stirs a little social justice into your otherwise average cup of fair-trade joe. Donkey continues to be a leading coffee joint in Athens not only for their comfy couches and cozy ambiance, but because of their devotion to community outreach and promotion of political discourse.

Their website bares a list of organizations who they support that “fundamentally positively influence people.” The list includes groups such as Amnesty International, Fair Trade USA, Pregnancy Resource Center and My Sisters Place.

donkeycoffee.com continues:

“We are committed to promoting social justice and the arts in our community and throughout the world through public awareness, serving, and financial giving. This is the heart of what Donkey is about.”

They took their loyalty to the enrichment of the community one step further this week by having customers rattle off their favorite part of the Constitution in trade for a drink on the house.

Yesterday, Donkey Coffee started the work week by observing an all-American event that took place on September 17, 1787. Baristas celebrated the signing of the Constitution by trading a customer’s favorite constitutional right for a free coffee drink.

This was a part of Donkey’s recent “Free Drink Monday” event.  After I recited Article 1 Section 3 of the Constitution (which provides some much-needed accountability to Congress), Michael, one of the baristas, told me the story of the couple that inspired the weekly freebie.

You can thank two Donkey frequenters Steve and Janet for your free power chai latte each Monday. Michael said the couple were such loyal customers that they accrued upwards of 4,000 points on their Donkey Coffee rewards card. Each drink equals one point (and after 10 points, you receive a free drink) so you can definitely say they were regulars.

Haley McKelvey enjoys a mocha latte during a exhausting study session on the second floor of Donkey Coffee.
Haley McKelvey enjoys a mocha latte during a exhausting study session on the second floor of Donkey Coffee.

They never spent their points and eventually moved out of town, so they donated the thousands of points to the customers of Donkey. So each week, Donkey asks their customers to recite a poem about Donkey Coffee, or dance for 10 seconds or like yesterday, share their favorite constitutional right of theirs, to use Steve and Janet’s donation.

Donkey continues to be my go-to spot to sip on an iced latte over statistics homework, not only for their plentitude of power outlets and couches, but because you might get into an interesting discussion over the patriarchy or systemic racism with your barista.

And has anyone else thought about the fact that the name of their coffee shop just so happens to be the symbol of a major political party? Maybe it’s just me.

Regardless of political preference, Athenians will continue to get their coffee fix from Donkey for years to come.



Have Your Coffee and Eat It Too

You’ve heard the rumors. Everyone in college is totally hooked. They can’t live without it. They drink and drink just to keep going. Drink coffee that is. If the stuff hasn’t found a permanent home in your routine right now, there’s a good chance long class days and late nights of studying and recreation alike will drive you to the warm embrace of the all powerful bean sooner or later.

Unfortunately for most, the act of caffeination is distressingly utilitarian. Whether it’s lousy dark roast that’s been sitting in the same canister for 4 hours or an espresso drink that’s been cream and sugared beyond recognition, there’s a whole beautiful world of coffee most are missing.

It’s long been my philosophy that if you’re looking for a good time in Athens, you’re either eating or drinking. When it comes to coffee options, you can kind of do both! That’s right; Athens is full of eateries that have wonderful coffee confections that can give you that much needed buzz in style.

For the less intrepid, The Affogato from Whit’s Frozen Custard is the perfect toe tester into the waters of caffeinated confections. The treat features a shot of espresso poured over a scoop of Whit’s smooth vanilla custard. The temperature difference highlights the best parts of both. The warm richness of dark espresso marries wonderfully with the lightness of the custard. It’s simple enough to be scarfed down in a pinch or savored as an after lunch pick-me-up and the best part is, if it melts before you’re finished, it basically just becomes a mocha milkshake.

For the coffee committed, there are few power-packed snacks better than Java Drops at Donkey Coffee. At the center of each of these rich dark chocolate beads is a whole roasted espresso bean. Each candy is a textured morsel. The chocolate coating is dense and soft before the satisfying crunch of the crisp beans. A bag of them is a good snack for incremental energy throughout the day, though there is a danger in devouring the whole bag in one sitting which will probably leave you with the jitters for the rest of the day.

Finally, for the bravest of brave, without any fear in their hearts, there is the coffee bar from the Petru Chocolate Truck. The food truck that often occupies sidewalk space between Schoonover Center and College Green specializes in all things decadent. The coffee bar at first looks like any unassuming chocolate bar, although it is actually a blend of pure Ridge Runner ground coffee pressed with cocoa butter. The result is a potent treat with a hint of smoothness that compliments the intense granola-like grit of the grounds.

This one is potent. I ate half of one bar and was afraid I would vibrate out of my body. To cut down on the intensity, I also paired it with a lemon white chocolate bar also sold by Petru. The mix felt a lot more balanced, the light softness of the white chocolate reigning in the darkness of the coffee bar.

These are by no means the only unique treats Athens has to offer but they are a good start for anyone trying to get out of the sterile routine of mud from the dining halls or cafes. Athens is a place that rewards exploration. There’s always a new spot to find and a new treat to eat, you just have to go looking for it.

Spoken word brings Donkey Coffee to life on Tuesdays

Behind a closed, wooden door covered in posters and flyers, there is a room in Donkey Coffee cluttered with the kind of couches that steal patrons away from the world and the kind of old wooden chairs and tables that beg to be decorated with old ceramic mugs. At the farthest end from the door is a stage, furnished with a piano, a desk and a lamp.

On a typical weeknight this room is filled with the studious, the chatty and the introverted. But on Tuesday nights the room becomes Designated Space, a place for spoken word, whether that be a rant, a poem, a monologue or a song.

Griffin Allman, a freshman studying fine arts, sat in front of the stage with a few friends, his jacket still on and his backpack pressed to his leg, like he was waiting for something to start – or maybe for something to end. One by one people volunteered to step up to the microphone. Finally, Allman raised his hand, ran his fingers through his hair and then jumped on stage.

He read through a poem about a rough prom night and then proceeded to introduce a second reading.

“I guess I need to do trigger warnings for this one,” he said. “It’s something that I think about a lot. So, there’s a lot of thoughts of suicide and death and blood and stuff going on. I figured I should say that.”


That was Allman’s first time doing spoken word.

“All of that was true, and the second one is something that I think about a lot when I drive,” he said.

Allman doesn’t consider himself a poet because he doesn’t rhyme – which could be heard in his performance. He prefers prose.

Allman is no stranger to public speaking. He spent a lot of his extra time in high school doing speech and debate and is on the team at Ohio University as well. Most of Allman’s friends in high school were in competitive sports, but he wanted to compete in a different way.

Allman took a pause before he continued on. He started to describe a girl who broke his heart.
Allman took a pause before he continued on. He started to describe a girl who broke his heart.

“It was really exciting for me to find out that there is just this whole other world where you can competitively compete and win scholarship money, for just competitive emotion.”

When he takes the stage during debates, it is usually to recite a dramatic monologue about true events, like he did on Tuesday. But for Allman, Designated Space was a different beast. Before his performance, the freshman sat quietly, studying each speaker. 

“Surprisingly, I still get a little nervous talking, and since this is the first time that I’ve spoken here I was a little not sure if I wanted to. But I just figured I’d go for it, and after I did it I felt a lot better.”

And it was noticeable. After Allman stepped off stage, he ran his fingers through his hair again, but this time with a huge grin on his face. He encouraged one of his friends to get on stage and speak as well.

“Speaking competitively, when it comes to speech and debate, is something that I love to do,” he said.

A Designated Space for Exploration

The cozy, windowless back room of Donkey Coffee and Espresso is warmly lit. The current decor of paintings of birds accents the eggshell walls and dark wood paneling. On most evenings, you’ll find this section filled with friends snuggling on couches, people buried in computer assignments, people on first dates and folks curled up on cozy chairs reading and writing for pleasure.

This warm, inviting haven is a fitting location for creative expression, and every Tuesday night at 9 p.m. it transforms into an open mic for reading poetry, essays, and narratives. Sometimes people even showcase performance art. This weekly session holds the fitting title of Designated Space, a home for poets new and old to gather and share their art.

I would be lying if I said that every poet who climbs onto that stage and takes the mic on a Tuesday night is good. Not everyone can be Maya Angelou, after all. On the other hand, it takes real bravery to share such personal art, and seeing people share, regardless of the topic or quality of content, is inspiring.

Regulars present new work like they would present their prized possession or a younger sibling. Olivia Cobb, an English major, began her set with a new poem. “I just wrote this one a few days ago,” she said. “I can’t wait to share my baby with you.”

The beauty of Designated Space is that it showcases a mix of regulars and pop-in poets, people who have been religiously pouring their work out every week since they discovered the weekly event juxtaposed with people who had no idea that Designated Space was even a thing—they just happened to be in the room when it started.

Allman performs an original piece at Designated Space.
Allman performs an original piece at Designated Space.

One such performer was Bobby Walker, a junior studying women, gender and sexuality studies. “I didn’t even know this was a thing until it started happening two hours ago,” they chuckled. Walker treated the audience to a piece read in their Guyanese accent, an accent they often choose to Americanize because they feel self-conscious. It was a special window into their personal world and upbringing, insight not provided but the casual passing conversations we have with strangers and acquaintances.

While some simply read at the microphone, others choose a more complex performance. Griffin Allman is a freshman studying integrated media. His readings were performed with intense energy, and at points he grabbed his hair, threw his arms out and nearly broke into a shout. Allman is a prize-winning member of OHIO’s Forensics Team.

Kara Guyton, the usual host of Designated Space and a senior studying commercial photography was unable to host the whole event, but she popped in at the end of the night to read some of her favorite poems about animals. Guyton was charming and funny, interspersing her humor between serious poems. Her voice was soothing and inviting, and her readings of two Charles Wright pieces entranced the audience wholly.

Over the course of the two hours, 16 people read poetry. Some chose to read original pieces, others read from poets past, while others chose to talk about everything from depression to self-exploration to vaginas to missing old lovers.

When I returned home to pick out my favorite bits of tape and outline this article, I couldn’t help but feel the pull to come back next week and explore the spoken word that fills the cozy back room with life every Tuesday.

This place makes me feel both wildly uncomfortable and insanely at home

Thriving moments. Tired hazes. Existential crises. Tears of … laughter. Athens is the geographical center of a mental whirlwind. Athens acts as the setting to my life as I grow older and pretend to be wiser. There are so many places here in the backdrop as I lose my youth that I treasure.

Sometimes it feels like my life is just an episode of Seinfeld and my friends and I don’t exist outside of our stomping grounds: Donkey Coffee, the Stacks of Alden and the Skull. Then there are those moments of pure solitudinal bliss when I take my trips to the Athena Cinema every Friday at five.

Yeah, I could talk about those moments when stresspectations are threatening any semblance of stability in my life and I open the cinema doors, order my five dollar ticket, get the star-shaped stamp on my customer card and sit down in silence, escaping into the world of independent film. The heat blares during the opening trailers, offering an air draft that shifts back and forth between hot and cold.  The breeze forms goosebumps on my skin even when the movie isn’t strong enough to send chills down my spine.

I could talk about how after every movie I walk down to the intersection of Court St. and W. Washington up to Donkey. Looking across the street, always seeing a character in my sitcom smoking a cigarette on the stoop in front of a sign that reads “No Loafing. No Loitering.” I remember the pun we always say that we are nothing but a bunch of rye, wheat, or white loafers. It’s always been an old joke, but I still smile because it reminds me of Dad’s corny one-liners. Those stoops our are stomping grounds and we own that public property.

Those steps are the resting stop for philosophical debates, calls from stressed mothers and the obligatory complaints about how the educational system is just gettin’ us down, man.

But when asked to answer the question What’s your favorite Athens spot? I have to secede from the world I’ve created for myself and walk up the road a little to 7 N. Congress, a different universe. It exists within the Ohio University walls yet it is a clear anomaly. The Gathering Place.

The walkway that leads to the main entrance of The Gathering Place
The walkway that leads to the main entrance of The Gathering Place

The “G.P.” is a drop-in health center for adults struggling with mental illness. It’s an escape for me, for it’s members and for the staff. It’s a porch full of people smoking and joking and telling tall tales. It’s walking into a kitchen that always has a pot of coffee brewing and food on the table. It’s a dining room that always has a game of Blokus or Scrabble going on. I go there to volunteer, to talk, to make art, to laugh and to listen. Sometimes there are fights and people bicker, but just like any other home the argument is resolved and tomorrow is just another day devoid of a grudge.

I didn’t make my way up the wooden entrance by way of my own good will. Community service requirements brought me there and that innate sense of home kept me going back. As a student confined by my selfishness and narrow view of the world, this place offers a perspective that is more than humbling. I’ve seen these people before, walking through the streets, but I paid no mind. I may have never noticed them while I walked with tunnel vision because my mind was tangled and preoccupied.

As I write this, I know I need to speak more about what this place means to me as an individual. It’s hard to find the words to describe a place that feels so intuitively good. The Gathering Place lacks judgment because it’s full of outsiders.

Judgment casts a negative tint on my worldview, acting as my blindside. I judge, hold assumptions, feel judged, worry I give off the wrong image, etc., etc.

The “G.P.” offers an unreal sense of empathy because the members share the same struggles. Understanding and support is interlaced into the air that we breathe.

My favorite place is somewhere that both takes me out of my comfort zone and makes me feel at home. I usually enter with a mind full of assignments, arguments and anxiety and leave with a smirk and an unusual sense of calm. The hardwood floors remind me of the ones I grew up with and the hardships of the members are ones I’ve felt too.  The Gathering Place is an oasis of abnormality and it’s as refreshing as a hot cup of coffee with cream after a good night of sleep.

Donkey: Decaf for nobody

I don’t like Athens, Ohio.

I understand the small-town charm, but I’m immune to it. In three years, I’ve yet to gather more than a handful of friends, the majority of which I’ve already lost. I will probably not be coming back for a single post-graduate hOUmecoming, nor will I force my children to go to college here. Despite my overwhelming gratitude and praise for the journalism school at Ohio University, I cannot wait to graduate and get out of Athens.

A cozy December afternoon spent at Donkey Coffee with an iced chai latte.
A cozy December afternoon spent at Donkey Coffee with an iced chai latte.

The exception is Donkey Coffee. The back room on the first floor, the couch to the right, next to the sound booth? That’s my spot. During finals week when it is crowded, during winter break when their isn’t a soul in town… anytime of the year, I love it. Donkey’s atmosphere is what really draws me in (although I have always been a coffee fan).

There is something about a room full of 30+ undergraduate students hunkering down, surrounding each other with silent support and studying at a coffee shop that is open 24/7 for the week; the infectious determination fills the air, overpowering the scent of unwashed hair and the aura of unhappy souls.

There is something about sitting on a sunken-yet-comfortable couch in the middle of a silent town– inhabited by few for longer than a couple of years– and comprehending how small you are in that moment.

It’s only here, at Donkey Coffee, that I allow myself, even for a few moments, to appreciate the opportunity to live in a town that still has a DVD rental store, a comic book shop and a bell ringing on the hour.

I don’t like Athens, Ohio. Sitting in Donkey Coffee, though, I can see why people do.