Sondra Powell is the FACE behind Louisville’s acclaimed Red Hot Roasters coffee shop. She has a passion for her work and for creative expression. From her decorated drive-through window to her vintage logos, Sondra is pretty unforgettable. And so is her coffee.
What do you do for a living?
I write a daily caffeinated love letter to the people of Louisville from my business: Red Hot Roasters.
Why did you go into the coffee business?
I fell in love with coffee while I was in college. I wasn’t simply drinking it to stay awake in classes. I paid attention to flavor and became increasingly curious about the process of making great coffee. I wanted to know about the processes, the ways they are alike and different. Coffee is unique in that it’s been through a ritual all its own, from the growth of the white sprigs to the way one likes to drink it.
I always knew I’d work for myself. When the opportunity came to start a coffee business, everything fell perfectly into place.
What sets Red Hot Roasters apart?
What doesn’t? The coffee is roasted continuously, with TLC, at our “World Headquarters” on Payne Street. But what really sets us apart from other coffee friends is that we don’t have a cafe. Drive around the corner of our building, take that left bend and we meet you at a window — a real window. No speakers. No fancy sizes or names. It reminds me of the way one would roll down the window of their car to say hello to a friend. That’s our style.
Order from us, and we make it there, for you. And it’s a terrific convenience that our customers can refill their coffee cans at that same window. Even though our coffee is available for purchase at local groceries and served at some independent restaurants, some customers drive around to say hello. I feel we have a special relationship with our customers. We may be people who meet from behind open windows, but we meet. It’s human connection. It’s intimate.
Will you ever expand this location into a walk-in coffee shop?
Right now, as I said, we are what sets us apart. It’s worked for us, and we’re sort of branded in that way. Having said that, we are open to possibilities in the future, especially if it’s something our customers want.
The Magic 8 Ball says, “Ask again later.”
What’s the craziest thing you have ever seen in the drive-through?
Oh, honey, we see it all. There’s something sacred about being alone in your car, on your bike, with the dogs. It’s one’s personal space.
If you really want me to pin down something that would classify as crazy (and believe me, I love it when the freak flag flies), I’d say maybe the couple that came through in kimonos, and another’s interest in buying me vintage lingerie, something I don’t think anyone would respond to easily.
Do you have any customers that come every day without fail?
We have awesome patrons. I’ve seen many, without fail, every day for several years. We see more and more familiar customers every day. We love our new ones, but what a compliment to have been part of someone’s routine that long, to have them like our coffee that much. To choose us. To come back. And man, we’re happy to see them.
How do you balance your job and your personal life?
Everything I do is an extension of my personality: the branding and logo; flair on the window, sometimes intentionally overdone; the local treats I love and sell; the signature drinks for holidays and weather conditions (e.g., the Peeptastic, a coffee beverage made with steamed milk, white chocolate and a Peep sitting on top). They are all an extension of me.
I wear coffee for perfume and decorate the window at the drive-through like my house. Personally, I can’t think of a better balance.
What are the biggest life lessons you have learned?
We all have our quirks. Be yourself, dare yourself. Be crabby when you’re crabby, be happy when you’re happy. And let your own flag fly.
But my biggest life lesson? That showing up every day, even when it seems impossible, showing up and doing the work is the thing that makes anything work — business, art, relationships. Even for yourself. Show up. Showing up is one of the most important things there is.
What is best advice you have received in business?
To hang in there when it’s difficult, learn from it and take pride in those lessons and your successes. That it’s wrong to think of a destination, a stopping point. The “where do you see yourself in five years” sort of question is too generic. You should be constantly evolving, learning, challenging yourself, showing up. Try to be a better version of yourself — it may break your heart, it may surprise you. But things come and go. Hold your head high, be humble and keep going.
If you were not in your current job, what would you secretly love to do?
Oh, I don’t know, float in a pool. Give tours at Graceland. Make shoe shopping an Olympic sport. Be a crossing guard. It all counts. But I can’t imagine doing anything I didn’t love. I love food, I love fashion. So, secretly? I suppose I’d really love to be a buyer of vintage clothes. They tell a story, and dang, what a great feeling to find something that belongs somewhere it can be admired.
What is something people would be surprised to know about you?
I was raised by wolves. I am kidding. My family is awesome.
It may surprise people to know that, as a business owner, I mentor women who are incarcerated. There’s possibility in all of us, in any circumstance.
What is your favorite place to eat?
Where do you like to shop?
What is a treat or a luxury you do for yourself?
Nail polish. The monthly dinner and drinks I have with my closest friends. We get gussied up for the sake of gussying up, looking fabulous and feeling fabulous.
And lots of nail polish. And shoes.
What are your weaknesses?
Because I’m a human: 1978 Trans Ams, old muscle cars that kick you back in the seat when they take off.
Because I’m a woman: Tall, lean men who smell like gasoline, salty steel and Marlboro Reds. You ladies know what I mean. Men with oil-covered hands, bright blue eyes and voices that sound like a Bruce Springsteen song.
What is your favorite thing to do in Louisville?
Roast great coffee. That’s the dang truth.
What are three things you cannot live without, besides God, family and friends?
- Red lipstick and faux-fur stoles
- Leopard-print high heels
- My three-legged cat, Handicat
What are you reading?
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, by Jenny Lawson. It’s laugh-out-loud. Not through tears. Tears from laughter. It’s that funny.
Thank you to Sondra and her brother Jason. We had delicious treats and lots of laughs at our photo shoot. Plus, it was great seeing the view from the “other” side of the drive-through window. Follow Red Hot Roasters on Facebook or visit their website at www.redhotroasters.com
As always, much gratitude to my FACES photographer Adele Reding and her fantastic work. See her profile here: www.facebook.com