Crom Evely first laid eyes on Jenny Popis in Summit Coffee’s Basecamp location in Davidson. After meeting online, Evely had suggested they meet for a date at the café on a Saturday last January.
Evely, who moved here from Seattle in 2004, says the place reminded him of his former home. Summit serves up rich local coffee shop vibes with an alpine hiking theme. Like at any coffee shop, people young and old monopolize tables for hours while they work, study, and meet. It felt like a safe space to get together with a stranger, says Evely, who regularly attended trivia and open mic nights at the café and had run in Summit-sponsored community races with his kids.
They had that first date at a table in the coffee shop’s front window. Six months later, he chose that spot to propose. They’re getting married this December—at the coffee shop, of course.
Theirs isn’t the only wedding that started with a Summit Coffee engagement. That doesn’t seem weird to Summit Coffee’s loyal customers, many of whom say the brand is part of their lives. It’s a testament to how Summit has mastered and monetized the community coffeehouse template more commonly used by not-for-profits.
The café has transformed almost overnight from the single location that Evely picked for his proposal into a regional chain. Since it started franchising, Summit has quickly grown to 11 locations across North Carolina and Georgia, and it is partnering with national brands like California-based home goods retailer Sweet July and regional giants like Tupelo Honey and Clean Juice.
As of September, the company had raised $900,000 from several investors, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. CEO Brian Helfrich says he projects annual revenue for Summit’s corporate division to reach $5 million to $7 million this year—an estimate he calls conservative.
Now Helfrich wants to make the brand itself a destination, with a residential extension that the most loyal devotees can call home.
Coffee With a Vision
A mural of a hiker is painted on the wall behind the coffee bar at the busy Summit Coffee Basecamp location in downtown Davidson, along with a large neon sign telling visitors to “find your summit.” Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ pride flags are displayed prominently inside and outside of the café.
It first opened its doors in 1998 under different ownership and has become a mainstay on Main Street. Tim Helfrich bought the café in 2003, and his brother, Brian, joined in 2011 to help grow and scale the company. Summit opened its second location, the Outpost, on Davidson College’s campus in 2013.
Brian Helfrich became the majority owner of the company in 2015, after Tim decided to become a teacher. The company opened a roastery in Cornelius, sourcing single-origin beans from Guatemala to Peru that year.
Its rapid expansion began in 2020, after management decided to start franchising. It now has 11 locations in places like Charlotte, Asheville, and the Atlanta area, with 10 more in various stages of development, including one in Charleston that will include a bakery.
Each prospective franchisee must meet with at least six members of the Summit leadership team, who evaluate whether they are on board with Summit’s values of diversity, inclusion, and sustainability. While Summit doesn’t insist upon association with a religious group or specific cause, the company’s aforementioned principles are a recurring motif in franchise conversations.
Helfrich often uses self-help speak to explain his vision.
“Our ultimate purpose is to provide opportunities for people and communities to flourish and sort of be the best versions of themselves,” he said.
In many ways, Summit is following a mold leftists in the 1980s and evangelicals in the 1990s used to master and monetize the community coffeehouse. While Summit isn’t aligned with any political creed or religious belief, the company offers a similar sense of belonging and purpose to its followers by organizing charitable and ostensibly fun events.
Helfrich knows not everyone in greater Charlotte agrees with the ethos his team espouses. After the murder of George Floyd, Helfrich posted a photo on Instagram of a protest in downtown Davidson, a post that he describes as speaking out very loudly against hatred.
He says they “lost dozens and dozens of social media followers,” as a result, or less than 1 percent of their current follower count of 15,400.
The loss doesn’t appear to bother him. “I need to be truthful to who we are and what we stand for,” he said.
Another value Summit aspires to is creating a family-friendly atmosphere, which is certainly true at the Huntersville location that franchisee Brian Kiley owns. Kiley’s son’s band frequently plays at the café, which regularly hosts charity events in partnership with nonprofits such as Bags of Hope and the Hearts & Hands Food Pantry.
“It’s like a modern-day church, if you will,” said Kiley. “It’s a gathering place.”
Summit also appeals to newcomers who feel disconnected, said Chief Concept Officer Dora Callahan.
“People really want community, and we’re trying to be a place that can create that.” It’s perhaps no surprise that Summit has a church-like vibe, then—a way of replacing a gathering space as church attendance has dwindled nationally to below 50 percent. A number of faith-based organizations in North Carolina have tried to augment their membership by opening coffee shops and cafés: places like Awakenings Coffee Shop in Rocky Point and the Holy Grind in China Grove.
Though Summit is not connected to any faith groups or religious denominations, its philosophy is reminiscent of those evangelical operations. The values section of the company’s website nods to a lecture by Christian writer and scholar C.S. Lewis: “Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, as C.S. Lewis talks about in his lectures, it is thinking of yourself less.”
Chad E. Seales, a religious studies professor at the University of Texas at Austin who studies the intersection of faith and capitalism in the United States, describes Summit’s model as using “conscious capitalism” as a way “to solve social problems.”
Reaching the Top
Helfrich now plans to move Summit’s headquarters and roastery to a 60-acre farm in Davidson that patrons will be able to visit. They received official approval for the development in August.
The site will be a working farm and also include a restaurant, bakery, and brewery. “In addition to being able to see your food be grown and harvested by the farmers who are going to be working on the staff, you can see your beer being brewed, your croissants being laminated, your coffee being roasted, and maybe even your ice cream being made,” he promised.
There are also plans for a residential area for people who never want to be away from the brand. Plans call for 100 homes, 12 of which will be certified affordable housing.
“The farm is a great opportunity for us to continue to make [inclusion] part of our ethos,” said Helfrich. “Between our cafés, Summit Farms, and how we employ people, we really want to create opportunities for people to flourish.”
By 2025, Helfrich says he expects Summit will have upward of 25 open locations. Despite growth, Summit’s leadership is dedicated to maintaining a small-town feel in each café and upholding its core values.
Evely, the IT manager who met and proposed to his future wife at Summit, has noticed. The vibe hasn’t changed, he said, “even though they’re growing, and franchising, and all that cool stuff.”
It’s a stable foundation for a marriage–and, maybe, corporate dominance.
Amber Burton has covered personal finance and workplace dynamics for The Wall Street Journal, Protocol, and Fortune. She lives in the Charlotte area.