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The ultimate neighborhood coffee shop for Oklahoma City
There were no shortcuts in choosing just the right blend of coffee beans to brew at Oklahoma City-based Stella Nova coffee shops. Co-founder Kelli Lay and her team sampled scores of blends before they selected the perfect beans to serve Stella Nova customers.
“The team went through 42 blends of coffee before they got the blend they wanted from the local roaster here,” said John Kennedy, Lay’s co-founder and partner in the craft coffee venture.
Kennedy and Lay followed that same meticulous path on other details as they built the coffee operation from the ground up. They labored over store locations, architecture, fixtures, pastries and people.
“We obsess over every detail,” Kennedy said.
The pair opened their first Stella Nova craft coffee shop on Main Street in Norman in January 2018. The Crown Heights store debuted three months later. That shop is located on the site of the former Abraham’s Onion Burger at 4716 N. Western Ave. And their third location in the Robinson Renaissance building in downtown Oklahoma City opened in October.
Stella Nova quickly gained a loyal customer base by offering much more than great coffee products. Location, drive-thru convenience, food products, atmosphere and friendly people play just as big of a role in driving success, Lay said. The company employs about 25 people at each store.
“I think it’s a little bit of everything,” she said. “We have assembled a team of a variety of personalities with different strengths, and they complement each other really well. They love what they do, they love working together and they love the products we serve. That’s very important. The customers notice.”
Stella Nova established itself as the ultimate neighborhood cafe where everything is locally sourced. For example, coffee is sourced from Oklahoma City-based Leap Coffee Roasters. Baked goods are locally produced. Stella Nova even offers a locally sourced ice cream.
“We partnered with Roxy’s Ice Cream to create individual offerings of their ice cream,” Lay said of the popular OKC-based ice cream shop. “They have never done that before.”
Added Kennedy: “We wanted locally sourced everything.”
Before they plunged into the coffee business, the Stella Nova founders worked together for nearly two decades at Oklahoma City’s Irish Realty, the commercial real estate firm that OKC native Kennedy founded in 1978. A former Oklahoma Secretary of State with a long history of civic involvement, Kennedy grew up in a home just a block away from the Crown Heights store’s location.
Lay is a native of Hugo and graduate of the University of Oklahoma. She also is engaged as a community volunteer and is a member of the Deer Creek school board.
“Kelli and I have worked together for 18 years,” Kennedy said. “We both like coffee, and thought it would be nice to create a place for people to come and have their meetings, have their time with friends or have their quiet time in the morning or the evening, and just create a nice place.”
Kennedy described his role in the partnership as designing and building the physical locations while Lay oversees day-to-day operation of the stores. Each sees the diverse strengths of their partner as an asset to the partnership.
“He built a retail coffee cafe and designed it out of nowhere, and it’s really cool,” Lay said of her business partner. “People enjoy it, and it’s comfortable, inviting and interesting.”
Lay is attentive to details of the operation, and created a culture where people enjoy their work, Kennedy said. She even takes her turn behind the counter to keep in touch with the flow of the business.
“I think this thing is working because of the culture she has created, and also the quality of product and every little detail,” he said. “She keeps the human touch, but also is very obsessive about the product. I think that is the combination that is making it work.”
So successful has the Stella Nova concept been in the OKC market, that the business partners have plans to expand it further in the metro – and beyond. A fourth location in far north OKC at NW 150 and Western is in the works, as well as a fifth planned for OKC’s Innovation District near the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. According to Kennedy, Stella Nova adds to an already vibrant coffee shop scene.
“There are a lot of great coffee shops here,” he said. “I want us to be additive to that, to be part of that community. We don’t see ourselves competing against them.”
“After we do five in Oklahoma City, our expansion plans are to do stores in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, Austin, Tulsa, Kansas City, Nashville and Phoenix,” Kennedy continued. “Our goal in the next two years is to be in seven markets and have 30 stores.”
Stella Nova will follow the same local sourcing philosophy for its future locations, no matter where they are located, the partners said.
As they sat at a table in the Crown Heights store, Kennedy reflected on his hometown as the starting point for what promises to be a flourishing brand of retail coffee shops across a wide region of the country. In fact, the name Stella Nova pays homage to a long-gone Oklahoma City restaurant known as TerraLuna Grille, he said.
“We love Oklahoma City, and we love doing business in Oklahoma City,” Kennedy said. “We are excited about the prospect of expanding the concept outside of Oklahoma. We feel Oklahoma City is the perfect place to start because it’s a place that relates to local, and we think that’s something the rest of the country will have an appreciation for.”