ON A MISSION

Eclectic coffee house owner reflects on a decade of serving java and mending souls

For Weekly SurgeOctober 3, 2012 

Fresh Brewed Coffee House owner Kevin Turner dislikes the spotlight and having any attention or focus turned in his direction. Too bad for him. Turner, 41, says he has learned through the years that whatever it is he doesn’t like or particularly want, that’s what he ends up with – and only in hindsight does he realize that that’s exactly where he is supposed to be. In theological vernacular it’s called “divine providence,” meaning the hand of God directing your path, whether you like it or not.

The laid-back, shaved-headed, goateed Turner says, “it’s all in a day’s work.” As the Myrtle Beach-based Fresh Brewed Coffee House turns 10 this month, the enigmatic “K.T.” can review his last decade, and think about the next, with few regrets. For the former full-time youth minister-turned barista and part-time foreign missions volunteer, it’s the path of his life. Whether in Prague ministering to street kids, or in Ethiopia ministering to traumatized child soldiers, or as owner/operator of an independent coffee house/art gallery/performance space, it’s “where God has put me,” he says. But for how much longer? “Who knows?” answered Turner, serving a hot cup of coffee in a cup nearly as large as the question. “This could all end tomorrow, and we could say we’ve been part of a great thing.”

“This whole coffee house is one great experiment,” said Turner. “I hope to give it away.” He may just find an opportunity to do that. While he feels the mission here is important, he also feels drawn to overseas ministries, but is finding Fresh Brewed’s responsibilities in competition for his time.

“I’ve been going to Africa – around three times each year, but it’s tough to get away,” said Turner. “It’s hard on the staff and the volunteers for me to be gone so much. I travel with Invest in Children & Youth, [a non-profit mission organization] from Charleston. We work with kids traumatized by war – child soldiers, rape victims. These kids in Ethiopia…I hope to get back there, and I hope the [U.S.] Embassy doesn’t get burned down. I know they’re advising people against going to Sudan, which is [just North] of Ethiopia. It’s interesting…Ethiopia was a Christian nation and during the Crusades, Muhammad asked the rulers of Ethiopia if they would take his children and his wives to protect them. They agreed and took them. Muhammad wrote in the Koran that no jihad could take place in the country. Christians and Muslims have lived side-by-side, together, ever since. But it’s changing. The [radical] Muslims are finding loopholes and it’s getting dangerous.”

Mission work and community service aside, the ultra-easy going Turner knows how to have fun, too. He works on his golf game, and as a self-described fan of “pubs and coffee houses” in Europe, has been spotted at other local concert venues, and he says he knows how to order a beer speaking in Czech and German. He says that nothing in the future is certain; worldwide civil unrest, mission opportunities, or pleasing his critics in Myrtle Beach. He knows he won’t even be able to always please himself, or those he says “God puts in my path.” Maybe he’s finally come to an agreement with God. “ I just gotta roll with it,” he said.

Where’s the Brew?

Fresh Brewed Coffee House is a destination; you won’t accidentally drive by it, though it’s not too hard to find. At 933 Broadway Street in Myrtle Beach, the business sits essentially on a dead end. Once cutting through the Five Points area of downtown Myrtle Beach, the north end of Broadway Street was closed by the city more than a decade ago, forcing a convoluted series of turns to arrive at Fresh Brewed, sandwiched between Myrtle Beach City Hall and Mrs. Fish Restaurant. Quietly (and sometimes not so quietly) Fresh Brewed has made its mark on the city, serving as a meeting space for recovery groups (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and others), as a bible study and church space, concert hall (noted progressive metal act King’s X performed there in 2004), art gallery, open mike and songwriter’s venue, and a pretty hip coffee house in a smoke-free, alcohol-free environment.

Fresh Brewed will celebrate its tenth anniversary on Oct. 12 with a bit of a bash. “We’re going to have a shindig,” said Turner, “a party, a celebration, with some sort of food – we’re still working on it - open to the public, come on out.”

Local singer-songwriter, friend to Fresh Brewed, Brian Roessler, has hosted an open mike night / songwriter’s showcase each Thursday evening for the past three years, missing very few opportunities to host and perform, with little and sometimes no compensation for his efforts.

“Our first open mike was in 2009,” said Roessler, “but I had been going to Fresh Brewed, and occasionally performing there, way back in 2003 or 2004. Kevin is absolutely fantastic. It’s a pleasure being affiliated. Each week we get 14 – 16 performers, and maybe another ten or so in the crowd - more if it’s someone’s first time and they bring a lot of friends and family. It’s not just musicians. We have poets, and very occasionally we have comedians and magicians.”

Open at 10 a.m. six (sometimes seven) days per week, Fresh Brewed is many things to many people, from all walks of life, and different worldviews. The venue caters to teens and retirees alike, depending on the event. Though a “faith-based coffee house,” according to Turner, who works with an advisory board to help with tough decisions, this is not your average church youth group hang out. It can be very secular when hosting a catered art show opening, or when the backroom-turned theater is full of sweaty youth dancing to decidedly non-Christian music. But Fresh Brewed is, at its heart, an outreach.

The large backroom space (capacity of approximately 200) has been utilized by a wide variety of churches, including 180 Degrees, originally a non-denominational house church, which grew, and rented the Fresh Brewed space for several years. The church has since moved around a bit but will likely return Sundays in October.

The décor of Fresh Brewed changes with monthly art shows, but is always pure college-town-living-room-chic. With plenty of bar stools and space at the coffee bar, couches, overstuffed chairs and traditional high-top tables, it is comfortable, and inviting. What you won’t see in this faith-based outreach are the iconic Christian images typical of other similar venues; the fish symbols, “Honk if you Love Jesus” bumper-sticker slogans, etc., that can serve to scare off the less tolerant among the clientele, though virtually all of the regulars know the score. There are, however some crosses displayed. Even those who don’t share Turner’s faith visit anyway, because he, his staff and volunteers make them welcome.

The Bottom Line

“The bottom line is to share the love of Christ,” said Turner, “and to know the hope we can have in Him.” He spoke unapologetically from behind the coffee bar one recent Thursday afternoon; the Internet radio playing alt-rock tunes in the background. Turner said he struggled with the pending interview for this Weekly Surge article, because he knows he’ll catch shit about it. “I know that Christ is very offensive and pisses people off. But I have people from all walks of life in here – straight, gay, Christian, non-Christian, other faiths; but they feel loved. I get criticized for that. I get it from both sides – from hardcore left; ‘Oh, this is that Christian place; they’re going to judge me,’ and from the hardcore right; ‘You cater to the wrong kinds of people. I can’t believe you play [mainstream] music, and let people sit outside and smoke.’ Tuner laughs at the absurdity when describing the dilemma.

He realizes that many Christians imbibe. While he too enjoys an occasional adult beverage, he, and by association his coffee house, walk the fine line between being too secular for the church crowds and too sacred for the secular crowds.

He’s sensitive to both though, riding what he calls a “fine line,” and a “balancing act.” “We’d probably serve alcohol except it’s not good for the recovery people,” said Turner, “and the board has said ‘No.”

Turner may be the hippest guy you’ll ever meet who is also unafraid to share the Gospel of Christ.

“He is kind of the Bono of the Grand Strand,” said Fresh Brewed manager Kate Vandy with a chuckle, in reference to a suggested comparison between Turner and the U2 band leader who globe-trots for humanitarian causes. Like Bono, Turner is uber-cool without trying, and happy to share his faith like a true evangelical. “Kevin is just a guy trying to make the world a better place,” said Vandy. “Nothing more, nothing less.” Coffee house volunteer Bob Bonnell agrees.

“He is a rock star,” said Bonnell. “He has a charisma that makes people gravitate to him. He’s just as quick to have a beer with you as he is to hold your hand and pray with you. When my wife [Camille Bonnell] and I moved here from California, we bumped into Kevin and started talking about coffee houses,” said Bonnell, who lives in Surfside Beach. “We have a background in outreach coffee houses, and we told Kevin that we wanted to help out any way we could. We started out making coffee and covering shifts. One day Camille brought in some biscotti – I think it was the first time Kevin ever had food in there. We cater to a lot of recovery groups during the week – then we started these Monday night men’s group bible studies. Then came Brian Roessler and his Thursday night writers’ nights. You can come through that door; you leave the world behind you. It’s a place to have some coffee, you can find someone to talk to, pray with you. We’re there to help all people and encourage them, we even have the zombies visit us.”

While he’s wary of pushing the Gospel down customers’ throats, Turner doesn’t apologize for his faith.

“I’m not at all ashamed of Christ,” said Turner while refilling my oversized mug with strong, hot brew “but I don’t want to be the “Christian Coffee House,” he says, making air quotes with one free hand. “I don’t want people to stop coming here. We get people on the edge of brokenness, who can come here and feel love, but we want to be below the radar, too. We don’t hide [our faith] either, but I think our actions speak louder. People ask us if we’re a Christian coffee house, or if we’re a recovery coffee house, and I say ‘No, we’re a coffee house.’ People try to label us, but we’re simply a coffee house.”

So how, in 10 years, did he arrive at this precarious place?

In the Beginning

“Our intentions were to never be a coffee house,” said Turner, who, a decade earlier, was working on his Masters in Divinity from Erskine Theological Seminary in Due West and needed a course called “Supervised Ministry.” He had left full-time youth ministry at a church in Aiken and moved to the beach to help with an ill family member. He’d also spent time in Europe and had been making regular trips to Africa.

“The bible study started in January of 2002. We met for a little while in Surfside Beach, and in the back of Marshall & Chubbs [Ale House & Raw Bar in Garden City Beach], but it grew so much – we had 100 or so – we got this place later that year. It needed a lot of work. And I said ‘let’s open up on Friday nights and see how it goes.’ We had a little coffee maker. The problem in the beginning, was that only Christians came here, and that’s not who we feel led to work with, we want everybody to feel free to come in here and not worry that we’re going to slam their face in a bible, or that they’re going to be judged. Would I have thought we’d make it ten years? By natural accounts – no, we shouldn’t be here.”

Who’s this “We?”

Turner can’t get a sentence out without touting the skills and dedication of dozens who’ve volunteered countless man (and woman) hours over the past decade, and of the tiny staff, overworked and underpaid, and of the occasional anonymous benefactor.

“It’s a struggle,” said Turner, “– we do have to pay our bills. But while we have business to do, we’re not a business. What makes it work are the people who volunteer to help. I hear all the time ‘Man, this place saved my life.’ But it’s only because so many people have seen the vision. I’ve had strangers come up and say ‘How can I help?’ I’ve gone to pay the rent, and the landlord says ‘Why are you here? Your rent is paid this month,’ and it’s because some anonymous person paid it for us. I have a small staff – maybe two – it varies, and they do so much. Alli Baccus books the art shows; we feature a different artist every month. She’s volunteered for around a year. Who does that? Kate Vandy, Abbi Haight, Bob and Camille Bonnell, Bernie…” He’s cut short when a disheveled elderly man, later identified by Turner as one of the area’s homeless, walks through the door. At 2:30 p.m. he’s the first customer in more than an hour and asks for a free glass of water.

“It’s my birthday,” says the man. “I’m 69-years-old today.” He rattled off his birth year, the month, and day without hesitation. He gave us a big toothless smile. Turner and I wish him a ‘Happy Birthday,’ he takes his red Solo cup full of ice water, thanks us and leaves quietly.

“They come in from time to time,” said Turner, “and we treat them like this: If they’re respectful, we’ll give em a cup of coffee and a place to sit for a while. If they’re rude, disrespectful, belligerent and drunk – they gotta go. Some people think downtown is unsafe. We’ll walk anybody to their car if they request it.” Serious crime is no more common in the Fresh Brewed area than most other Myrtle Beach neighborhoods, according to past police department assessments, and the coffee house has been known to draw big crowds that stay late into the evening, and not just on weekends.

What’s the Draw?

Besides being long-lived and one of only a few independent coffee houses in the area, it’s the kind of place you’d find in a big city or college town; a style of venue sorely lacking along the Grand Strand. In addition to excellent coffee and a limited food menu, Fresh Brewed is filled with original art, and hosts some out-of-the-ordinary events.

Fresh Brewed and a mix of independent producers have staged everything from Elvis impersonators to original musicals, and improv comedy shows. These events are never big money-makers for anyone, and are usually at best a break-even labor of love.

“I’m not quite sure how [Fresh Brewed] managed to survive all these years,” said Roessler. “I know they bring in very little income from coffee, [room rentals], and that kind of thing, but the community is so much better off because they’re still here.”

Carolina Improv Company, now based at the Uptown Theatre at the Myrtle Beach Mall, found an available stage and a ready audience at Fresh Brewed while still looking for space of its own. “When we first started we didn’t have a home,” said C IC’s Gina Trimarco Cligrow, “and we moved around a bit. Brian [Roessler] suggested Fresh Brewed, and we loved the space. It’s so very cool. I think we did four shows there, and enjoyed everything about it.”

Local lad, and Coastal Carolina University senior, singer/songwriter Charles Grace (Sleeping Policeman), remembers his first forays into public performance, and how Fresh Brewed played an integral role.

“I first started going to Fresh Brewed when I was 15,” said Grace, now 21. “I was still at Myrtle Beach High School. My first band, Chicken Day, played there. Then when Brian started the [open mike], I went to those as well and tried out my new songs – I still do, and I go to most every one of them. I love Fresh Brewed. It’s been an important place to hang for me and a lot of my friends.”

Touring bands looking to work for the door, needing a place to stop somewhere between New York and Miami have occasionally found a willing partner in Fresh Brewed, and the venue has played host to many fine acts as the decade passed. King’s X (“Faith Hope Love”), referenced earlier, played to a packed house in 2004, as did well-known folk musician David Wilcox. Those two shows remain the largest ever staged at the venue. Countless local bands, too, have found the venue to be a receptive, small, intimate spot to showcase new material and play in a non-bar format.

Fresh Brewed used to share all-ages, teen-oriented shows with venues such as The Basement, and Drink!, both in the neighborhood, and now both closed. The Sound Hole, just a few blocks east, has picked up most of the original, all-age rock shows, but Fresh Brewed still manages to host some live rock ‘n’ roll, and offers an altogether different experience than that at a bar. “We are doing less of those shows,” said Turner, “and we’re trying to be more selective. We typically do more of them in late fall and winter. I’m trying to focus on the singer/songwriter kinds of acts, but we’ll have bands, too.”

But coffee, music, church, and 12-step meetings are only a part of Fresh Brewed menu of offerings.

Let There Be Art

Original artwork has hung on the walls of Fresh Brewed from its earliest days, but organized; monthly art shows have brought scores of first-timers into the downtown Myrtle Beach venue, including October’s Artist of the Month, Joe Winkler. His show opens with a reception from 4 p.m. – 8 p.m. Saturday.

A civil engineer and homebuilder by trade, Winkler has an eye for the artistic side of pop icons, and a steady hand with pen and pencil. “This will be my first show at [Fresh Brewed],” said Winkler. He’s lived in the area for 17 years, and has had his works featured in other shows, but October will be all about Winkler and his photo-realism sketches of people you’d instantly recognize; Kurt Cobain, Ironman (a.k.a. Tony Stark, a.k.a. Robert Downey, Jr.) Harry Potter, and others.

“I really love [Fresh Brewed],” said Winkler. “I’ve been visiting for the past several years – really great people there. It’s a great venue for the arts in general – music, photography, other artists and up-and-coming talent.” Winkler is also a member of Round Table Art Group; an area organization that showcases local artists and hosts art shows.

“We’ve hosted a few art shows in Fresh Brewed,” said Calvin Blassingame, Round Table founder and area artist. “I did a solo show in there back in January. The space is great, it’s not traditional, it’s eclectic, it feels like home, but it’s more about the people. There are so many good people working there. Everyone I’ve ever brought in there has fallen in love with the place. I’ve been showing here for like five or six years. We’ve done workshops there. A lot of our artists are featured as Artists of the Month.”

Without any artificial prompting, Blassingame sounded the recurring themes for which Fresh Brewed and its founder, Turner, seems to be best known. “You can open up to the people down there about anything and everything. If you’ve got personal problems, something on your mind, something to get off your chest, if you need a friend, you can go down there just to hang out. Kevin, and everybody else – they’re just so cool. That’s what they do.”

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