Mike and Aileen McElwain had always planned to have their own coffeehouse and roastery one day. The couple has been a part of the Specialty Coffee scene since the late 1990s. So, when they found out that Erin Isbell and Kirk Summers were ready to hand over the reins of The Red Cat Coffee Houses, Mike and Aileen stepped up to the challenge.
“The Red Cat Coffeehouses are a great part of the Birmingham and Pepper Place community,” Mike says. “In the urban landscape we’re in at Railroad Park and at Pepper Place, we are very appreciative of the iconic landmarks that we’re close to like Sloss Furnaces, Railroad Park, and Pepper Place Market. There is a sense of history, accomplishment and sustainable landscaping and architecture, which I have tremendous respect for.”
Mike and Aileen took over The Red Cat Coffee Houses at Pepper Place and downtown at Railroad Park in October of 2019. For years, The Red Cat Coffee House has been a wildly popular Pepper Place destination for anyone looking for a caffeine fix or a quick bite to eat. But Mike and Aileen are ready to make the Red Cat Coffeehouses so much more.
Developing a great Entertainment District
In January of 2019, the Birmingham City Council approved Pepper Place’s designation as an Entertainment District. So, several businesses in the area, including Red Cat, are working together to make Pepper Place a go-to spot for nightlife. “We are completely on board,” Aileen says. “We would love for this to be a lively area in the evenings and on the weekends. I look forward to applying my
project and personnel management experience along with my collaborative and visionary personality
and my love for people and for having a good time, to help everyone see the opportunities and, develop
Mike and Aileen, who is juggling this new business endeavor with her full-time job as Coordinator for the Faculty Senate in the Office of the Provost at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, plans to extend the hours at The Red Cat at Pepper Place in April so the coffee shop will be open until 8 p.m. on weekdays and on Saturdays. They’ve already brought back live music shows to Red Cat, and are in the process of obtaining licensing to offer beer and wine in the very near future. The Red Cat Coffeehouses will also soon offer high-quality specialty teas from TeaSource, an award-winning specialty tea wholesaler who Mike and Aileen have great respect for and a long term relationship with. The baking team at the Red Cat are also working on diversifying their house-made baked good offerings to include new savory items and desserts that pair well with the excellent coffees and teas.
Red Cat at Pepper Place will continue to offer customers’ favorite food items, and Mike and Aileen are planning to add some new items to the menu, too. “As foodies and cooks, we are both looking
forward to adding additional tasty options.” Also, on their agenda, are hopes to expand the kitchen at the Pepper Place location. Kitchen improvements are already underway at the Railroad Park location.
Mike first got interested in coffee in the late 1990s when he moonlighted as a barista at a small mom-and-pop shop in Jackson, Mississippi. He soon became a trainer and then a manager. In 2002, Mike made his way back to Alabama after being recruited by O’Henry’s Coffees to roast coffee and serve as the training manager. From 2002-2019, Mike played a pivotal role in growing the business from two to seven cafes and in expanding the roasting and wholesale arm of the business, while developing a broad network of colleagues and experience and skills in the science and craft of coffee, wholesale production, improving efficiency, management, consulting and training, menu development and marketing.
Through the years, as Mike attended specialty coffee industry conferences and trade shows, Aileen came along and soaked up knowledge about the coffee business, too. She worked as a barista at O’Henry’s to stay in the know, and she managed the Tropical Smoothie Café in Hoover to get the experience she knew she would need one day once she and Mike had a cafe of their own.
In addition to his passion for coffee, Mike cares deeply about the environment. His father was a forester and environmental auditor in the timber industry in Alabama and throughout the Southeast. “I grew up working with my dad to care for, manage and enjoy the beautiful piece of woods and property that surrounded our home,” says Mike, a native of Brewton, Alabama. This inspired Mike to study Wildlife Biology and Natural Resource Management at Colorado State University. “These experiences have given me a deep respect for the environment and an understanding of the importance and ways that we can limit our human footprint,” he adds.
He and Aileen want The Red Cat to be eco-friendly coffee houses. “As much as possible, we strive to limit the use of disposable products,” Mike says, explaining that they often encourage customers to use mugs and plates. Also, the coffee stirrers are made from biodegradable spaghetti noodles instead of plastic. Growing up in Colorado, Aileen has a strong commitment to being as environmentally friendly as possible for the good of future generations. She is a member of UAB Sustainability Ambassadors. “We are already applying water-saving methods to both locations and plan to incrementally apply as many environmentally friendly practices as possible, without negatively impacting our great customer service and offerings.
The couple also hopes that The Red Cat will be able to purchase an energy-efficient Loring Smart Coffee Roaster. “This machine is state of the art and used by some of the best coffee roasters on the planet. It would allow us greater precision in every part of the roasting process and leave a much smaller footprint on the environment in several ways” Mike says.
Mike and Aileen, who met when they were both students at Colorado State University, have been married for 21 years, and they say that taking over The Red Cat Coffee Houses felt a lot like having a baby. “It was like we were brand new parents sent home with twins,” Aileen says. “Little instructions came with the babies. We were doing what we can, getting limited sleep, and trying to figure out our plan.”
“When you get one situated the other one starts crying,” Aileen says of the two coffee shops.
“Sometimes they’re both crying,” Mike adds with a laugh.
“But we’re both proud parents,” Aileen adds.
She credits the staff at both coffeehouse locations for helping them through it all. “During the transition time when Mike and I were drowning in paperwork, the staff did an amazing job of doing what it took to keep things going,” she says. “We are impressed with the staff; they are incredibly dedicated and bright and they love our customers and being an integral part of the Pepper Place and Railroad Park communities.”
Taking over an existing business means having to figure out and perhaps revamp systems, and behind the scenes, Mike and Aileen are working to streamline day-to-day operations with new systems, schedules, and checklists. One such step is they have invested in a ticket printer system to ensure guests’ needs are being met exactly as they have requested, within a reasonable time frame and while being friendly and engaging, yet providing prompt service.
While there may be a lot of fantastic new changes at The Red Cat, one thing will remain the same. Mike and Aileen will stay true to The Red Cat mantra of “coffee for everyone.”
Yes, Red Cat offers high-quality coffee served by baristas who know the ins and outs of the industry. “But the environment is always about serving and engaging with the guest and never looking down your nose at them,” Aileen says.
And Mike agrees. “It will continue to be a place where everyone feels welcome.”