TEA & COFFEE
We had the chance to sit down with CJ Barone, the founder and owner of Empire Tea & Coffee to discuss the business’s several locations, including the Bristol waterfront location.
Empire Tea & Coffee opened in 2004, making this their 18th year of business. The first location was the Broadway location in Newport, Rhode Island, with 1500 square feet of space. Today, that space is over 5,000 square feet of prime cafe real estate. Barone says that the goal of Empire was to create a community space. “I moved here from out of state and didn’t know anybody within a three hour car ride. And when I was going to college, I went to the local coffee shops – that’s where I met people and made connections to my community. So I moved here and thought, ‘I should go to a local coffee shop.’” But in 2004, the cafe scene in Newport was limited to places like Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks. “So after a couple of years of being here,” he said, “you know, someone’s going to have to make a community center coffee shop. I guess it’s going to be me!”
The Broadway location in particular is special to Barone because it was the first location and it was designed specifically for that building and with the purpose of being a community space. Barone recalls other businesses using the space to start planning their own businesses – it turns out that a lot of folks like the idea of a community centric coffee shop, and they were able to continue growing to another location in Newport, to Middletown, and even to Bristol.
Bristol has always been a place that Barone loved visiting. He had actually looked at another space in Bristol two years prior to the opening of the Thames Street Landing location, but it didn’t feel like the right spot. But when the owners of Thames Street Landing reached out about potentially taking up shop on the waterfront in 2016, it was a much better fit. “We felt that this space matched our community vibe, and at last we could expand into Bristol and serve that community. A lot of folks in Bristol were already coming to our stores,” he added. “So it was such a cool thing to do.”
The name Empire Tea & Coffee is a compelling one, and Barone laughed when asked how he came up with it. “I really wish I had a good story in the name! A lot of folks think it’s because I’m from New York State originally. It has nothing to do with that. We went through hundred of names, and we just started trying to spin it. What sounds good if somebody is sitting on our couches and gets a call asking where they are? ‘Well, I’m at Empire.’ Sounds good; let’s do it. But I don’t think I’d ever pick that name again.”
Barone said he realized that changing the name would be too difficult, so he doesn’t have another name in mind. “The reason I regret the name a bit is because now we have multiple of them. Everyone who sees me says, ‘Oh, CJ, you’re growing an empire.’ Like, okay, yeah, didn’t think that one through.”
When asked what Barone thinks people should know about Empire, he said, “The number one thing is that we are a community centric business. We care about our community more than anything, you know, and we’re always looking at how we can participate in our community. “
The community aspect is Barone’s favorite. Until about two years ago, Barone spent a lot of time at the shop, getting to know many of the people who would visit the cafe in Newport. “And it was really cool to get to know everybody. Now I have a two year old, and I don’t have time to be there all the time.” But his employees continue the friendly environment Barone helped create, making connections to the community and getting to know everybody by name. “It’s a really cool thing, running a business. You’re constantly learning, you’re constantly being challenged to be creative and solve problems and grow. The stress part of it is hard, you know, trying to make sure you make payroll every week. But the creativity, the fun part of it, that’s just awesome.”
Check out Empire Tea & Coffee at one (or all!) of their three locations:
251 Thames Street in Bristol, RI
22 Broadway in Newport, Rhode Island
112 William Street in Newport, Rhode Island