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Tuesday, August 10, 2021

River City Resilience Series: Fort Thomas, Kentucky | For Fort Thomas Coffee the Culture is Community (Sponsored by Southbank Partners)

Fort Thomas Coffee owners Justin and Christine Smalley took over the business in late 2019. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

by Robin Gee
Photos by Phil Armstrong

Fort Thomas Coffee | 118 North Fort Thomas Ave, Fort Thomas, KY | Monday to Friday, 6:30am - 8pm; Sat and Sun, 7 a.m - 4 p.m. | take out, dine in, outdoor seating | call (859) 999-8080, email 


Fort Thomas Coffee is known at the community gathering spot in the city. (photo: Phil Armstrong)


Fort Thomas Coffee is known as the city’s community gathering place. It’s a place to see and be seen, to invite your friends, catch up on the day’s news. Even during the socially distanced year we’ve had, business at the coffee shop has been brisk.

Owner Christine Smalley said she thinks business actually increased despite fears and restrictions because of the shop's position as a community place. If only for a few minutes waiting for a coffee order, it gave customers an opportunity to be out in the world with others, to simple say "hello."

Smalley said had not started out to open a coffee shop. She and her husband Justin Smalley wanted to open a business in Fort Thomas, but they were open to what that might be. What that wanted was a space that would meet their end-goal: a place that would facilitate community, that would be that gathering place. They had considered perhaps a coffee shop, or a wine and cocktail bar, maybe a business co-working place. Their intention was to create the space and find a tenant that would help bring that goal to life.

She said there were three intertwining influences that fed into her vision and continue with her today. "Business has just been in my blood. I come from generations of business owners. Hospitality is my heritage. I’ve had all these women in my past hosting and opening up their homes and just being an example of accepting people and creating a real space for belonging. That is what I grew up in."

The final element is a culture of community. "Community is our culture here. I grew up in Fort Thomas. Fort Thomas just does community so well."

Fort Thomas Coffee has about 13 staff members, 11 of whom are trained barristas. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

Getting started

The Smalleys were still shopping around for a community gathering space, when they saw a mention in Fort Thomas Matters that the owners of Fort Thomas Coffee, the Valentines, were looking for someone to take over the business.

"My husband turned to me and said, 'Do you want to buy a coffee shop?' I just laughed, ‘well, we don’t know anything about running a coffee shop.’ But, it’s always been a part of the vision, because people gather around coffee, and so we thought we’d be silly to not look into it."

From there they met with the Valentines, who Smalley said were very intentional about who they would want to take over. A conversation with the former owners made it clear to the Smalleys they were on the right path.

"They said we are looking for somebody who will grow this place for the community. And so they expected us to come in with a growth mindset. So we took the torch they passed on, and that’s where we are headed."

They purchased the business in late 2019 and had a soft opening over spring break in April 2020. Despite the pandemic, they were busy and have grown steadily over the past year. This growth, and the desire to provide more to the community, were behind their next move.

Although they have a small set up for food, Fort Thomas Coffee serves a lot of breakfast sandwiches and breakfast fare. People want to linger more with each other these days. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

First business in One Highland

That growth mindset has led Smalley in new and exciting directions. She said when she first heard about the One Highland project, she followed the community conversation with interest, but she had not really considered it to be in her future plans.

"We didn’t have a strong opinion either way but decided we’d embrace whatever is decided for the town. Little did we know we’d end up being the first corner tenants in that space."

The couple met with developer Rick Greiwe. "He laid out his vision, and we laid out our hearts, our plans for community and what we had originally set out to do — to find space for the community to gather, to include a coffee shop perhaps, a wine and cocktail bar perhaps, a business coworking space...and he said 'that is what I want for my tenants...what will it take to get you over here?'"

And, so, said Smalley, that began the journey for the next phase of her business. Early next year, if all goes well with construction, Fort Thomas Coffee will become the first anchor business in the new One Highland building. 

A rendering of the new Fort Thomas Coffee space at One Highland. Smalley said design work will be done to reflect the look and feel customers love. (rendering: Emma Adkisson, PCA Architecture)
With the move, Fort Thomas Coffee will go from 990 square feet to 3,808 square feet of space. And, with that, the Smalleys will have a home for Fort Thomas Coffee but also many of the other elements that were a part of their original vision. They plan to add a bakery section to the coffee shop and to host a wine and cocktail bar, as well as a large business coworking and event space.

"The good news is that the mission stays the same, to embrace community. I do hope people will still feel they can come and be seen and known and belong, and that this is their place. We intend for the feel to stay the same," Smalley said.

Seven Hills Coffee provides Fort Thomas Coffee a free trade coffee blend and the popular Highlander Grog. Espresso comes from Deeper Roots roasters, direct from producers. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

More than a box of donuts

Smalley has been busy exploring bake shops and baked goods for her plan to add a bakery or at least bakery items to the menu. Working with a business consultant, she said she will take the advice to hire a food manager who can find the right fit that could involve partnering with a bakery or providing a combination of bakery made on site and brought in. So, baked goods are definitely in the plans but the logistics and what will be offered are still to come.

"I grew up where everyone went to Weideman Bakery," she explained. "Since they left, there’s been this I thought, if we ever got the space I would love to offer a little bit of what Weideman offered us."

For Smalley, Weideman offered warm memories as much as good baked goods. "My grandfather would put donuts on our doorstep every Saturday morning...When we woke up there were already donuts down on the doorstep. So our town is a town of tradition. These are the things I think about when thinking about moving right into the center of town...How can we help families build more tradition within the community even if that’s just getting a box of donuts?"

Fort Thomas Coffee owners and staff have been trained by Deeper Roots to honor all the hands that touch the coffee from bean to cup. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

A place for gatherings large and small

Smalley is most excited about having the space to provide a place for people to come and work. She hopes to also provide rooms equipped for business meetings large and small that can be converted to community event spaces for birthday parties and more in the evenings and weekends.

She plans to provide a dedicated coworking space. "Business members" will be invited to use the space for coworking, and will have access to all the amenities from coffee to staplers.

The smallest event room, said Smalley, will be a beautiful Zoom Room, where people can hold video conferencing calls. The medium and large space can be used separately for meetings and can be put together for larger groups. There will be a separate entrance so that people coming to a meeting or a party do not have to walk through the coffee shop space.

The coffee bar manager works to create coffee drinks and specials that even the most discerning coffee connoisseurs will love. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

Fort Thomas Coffee and Fort Thomas the community

"It’s been interesting and fun to see that, as we are coming out of the pandemic, people are wanting to be around each other. Fort Thomas Coffee is creating that opportunity for people, who just in passing, will stop there, see other people from the community and gain from being with each other," said Ron Dill, city administrator for Fort Thomas.

Supporting businesses like Fort Thomas Coffee has always been important to the community, but it has taken on even more focus in the past year, said Dill.

Fort Thomas does not have a lot of businesses along its riverfront, but Dill wanted to mention one that is very important, not only to the city, but also to the Greater Cincinnati boating community. Aquaramp Marina, along Mary Ingles Highway, is a full service boat launch and fueling station. They provide storage and dock spaces. In recent years, the business has had to deal with road issues on Route 8, but they are doing well despite the inconveniences. Dill calls them "a hidden local gem."

Supporting business is a defining focus of the city’s comprehensive plan, he said. The plan went through an extensive update two years ago and remains a guiding document for the city.

"Council just approved the development of an Entertainment District, and we identified the Midway district as the first opportunity to do that. So we are going about the implementation of the guidelines to allow us to offer that to those businesses. We expect to be able to do the same thing in the Central Business District once we get near to the completion of the city building and the One Highland project," he said.

Fort Thomas Coffee is a part of a the Central Business District in Fort Thomas. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

"Those are things we feel are an opportunity to enhance our business district coming out of the pandemic, and the opportunity for those businesses to be able to expand a little into the public space and to allow movement between the businesses and create energy between them."

Fort Thomas is known as a walking city, and this, too, has factored into the city’s development plans and projects.

"We have a number of projects in our parks," said Dill. "We’ve identified certain amenities and areas to focus on and have gone about implementing some of those." These include upgrades to the ball park and other areas in Tower Park, adding new shelters and playground equipment.

Fort Thomas has been working on their trails within the parks. The city has an application for a grant in the works and hopes to make more improvements to the Tower Park trails. The city has done renovation to trails in Highland Park as well, he said.

Yet, you don’t have to be a hiker to get around the city. Fort Thomas has an aggressive sidewalk repair and growth program. Dill noted that they have recently completed the North Fort Thomas Avenue sidewalk project adding sidewalk where there was none along the stretch of the avenue from Covert Run Pike to the edge of the corporation line with Dayton on Dayton Pike.

The city held many community conversations as they developed their comprehensive plan, and community input continues to be a part of the city’s plans. Currently, at public events throughout the summer, the city has been sharing plans and gathering comments on a potential bike/skate park and a splash park,

Dill said  it may be a bit cliche to say, but Fort Thomas is a great place to live, work and play. There is truth to that, and the city is always striving to provide people a community with many opportunities, he said.

After a year of social distancing and uncertainty, Fort Thomas Coffee provides an inviting atmosphere to just be with others. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

A final thought and a promise

"I would like the community to know we genuinely love them...We’re grateful to serve and, in case anyone is concerned or uneasy about our move over to One Highland, I want them to know we are being very intentional to listen to our town and to recognize that we get to build something in the center of town that is rich in tradition," Smalley said.

"My grandma is 94 years old. She grew up in town and knows so many families, and just hearing her stories told with such care how she speaks about her times here in Fort Thomas. I think about all these things as we build the space. I do want to carry that tradition into the coffee shop and also bring in the new fresh feel of where our town is today, the things we value in our town."

For more information, visit the Fort Thomas Coffee website. For even more and an opportunity to weigh in on future plans, check out Smalley’s newsletter, FTC Community Builders.

Fort Thomas Coffee owner Smalley said her goal is to capture the tradition and feel her customers have known but add more services and new excitement in the new location at One Highland. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

Check out more of the River City Resilience Series, Sponsored by Southbank Partners, exclusively  on Fort Thomas Matters:
River City Resilience: Galactic Chicken, Dayton KY
River City Resilience: Dari Bar, Silver Grove KY
River City Resilience: BB Riverboats, Newport KY
River City Resilience: Second Sight Spirits, Ludlow KY
River City Resilience: Nomad, Bellevue KY
River City Resilience: Olla Taqueria Gutierrez, Covington KY

Fort Thomas Coffee offers a relaxed atmosphere and great coffee. (photo: Phil Armstrong)

About Southbank Partners 

Southbank Partners, Inc,, is a community and economic development organization that coordinates activity with the cities that lie along Northern Kentucky's bank of the Ohio River. Their purpose is to support the cities through promoting and coordinating development activities, fostering teamwork and collaboration, and providing a unified voice for the partner cities in advocating common positions to state and federal government, as well as to other communities. Members are: Bellevue, Covington, Dayton, Fort Thomas, Silver Grove, Ludlow and Newport. 

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