Photography by Michael Butler, Jr.
When he talks about what sets Comeback Coffee apart from other Memphis coffee shops, co-owner Hayes McPherson doesn’t list their sustainably sourced beans, handcrafted flavoring syrups or fruity coffee sodas. Instead, he focuses on Comeback Coffee’s mission to make the customer feel like family.
“I don’t think we’re better than any shop down the street. That’s not our goal,” says Hayes. “From the moment you walk in the door, we want you to feel like you’re a part of what’s happening here.
As cliché as it sounds, we want you to feel like part of the family.
We want the interactions to be good. We want the drinks and the food to be good. We want you to feel as comfortable as possible.”
That’s reflected in the shop’s decor—a neon sign with the words “Stay Awhile” shines brightly over the open, inviting space with blonde wood accents and crisp white paint. Padded booths, leather couches and fabric-covered chairs were chosen with comfort in mind, says Hayes.
Hayes and his wife, Amy, opened Comeback Coffee in March 2019 in the mostly disinvested Pinch District after they fell in love with the 124-year-old building at 358 North Main Street. The building, constructed in 1895, served as a private residence with an office in the front for years, but it was in need of plenty of structural and electrical repairs.
Amy’s dad is a retired contractor, so the renovation project was a family affair. They retained the original window frames and doorframes and tried to maintain the space’s historic feel. A graphic designer by trade, Amy kept a Pinterest board of ideas inspired by her and Hayes’s travels. The end result was an open-air space with a clean, minimalist vibe, accented by plenty of plants hanging from wooden slats covering some of the old duct work. There’s a spacious courtyard patio, flooded with natural light, in the back.
As for the coffee, Hayes admits that Comeback falls in line with the third wave philosophy of paying careful attention to the science behind brewing and the sourcing of sustainable coffee beans. But Hayes and Amy don’t love the term “third wave.”
“Third wave has a connotation of pretentiousness, and that’s not what we’re shooting for, so we call it specialty coffee,” Hayes says.
The house brew is made with beans from Methodical Coffee out of South Carolina, but they also feature other roasters from across the United States.
“We support local roasters, and we love what’s happening in the coffee community here. We want them to be able to showcase their stuff here, and we also want to showcase what’s happening nationwide,” Hayes says.
Their process for choosing roasters comes down to three factors: quality, ethical sourcing of coffee beans, and fair treatment of the roasters’ staff.
All of Comeback’s flavored syrups, such as the seasonal smoked pecan syrup, are housemade. Hayes says every cup is “crafted to a science,” but Comeback doesn’t do pour-overs, which are typical of third wave coffee shops.
“We focus on the drip, and we have really good drip,” he says.
Comeback’s coffee bar features three taps. When they first opened, they experimented with nitro coffees, but Amy says they weren’t “super happy with it.” So now the taps feature Comeback’s flavored coffee sodas, which they’ve become known for. These carbonated coffee drinks are combined with handcrafted syrups to create unconventional flavors, like the strawberry lime coffee soda that they opened with and later replaced with their award-winning Orange Vanilla Cream Soda. (Their Orange Vanilla Cream Soda won first place in City & State’s third annual Cold Brew Throwdown back in September 2019.)
“It sounds weird, and it doesn’t quite make sense, but it’s really good. Coffee soda is being done other places, but we’re doing it a little different,” Hayes says.
When Comeback opened, they featured a full breakfast and lunch menu, but they’ve since scaled back to serve pastries, a couple of sandwiches and made-in-house cereals and oatmeal bowls. “Our kitchen is run by chef Cole Jeanes, and he has the same mindset about food as we do about coffee—that everything should look the best and taste the best,” says Hayes.
Hayes and Amy are native Memphians who were familiar with the Pinch District’s rich history. The area, which is just east of the Bass Pro Shops at the Pyramid, served as the city’s first commercial center and was home to the city’s earliest immigrants. “We wanted to buy into something we felt good about, and we felt good about the history of this place and this district.
At one point, this was Memphis. This was it,” Hayes says.
The neighborhood was largely disinvested when they began renovating Comeback’s space. “It was a really risky decision,” says Hayes.
“When we first started talking about this, a lot of people would tell us there was no way we’d succeed because there was no foot traffic, and we were nervous up until the day of opening.
“But that first day we were open was overwhelming in the best way. There was a line out the door. I don’t know why we have a full shop almost every day. But people get behind authentic things, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Comeback has quickly gained a loyal following, despite being surrounded by empty buildings. In November, Food & Wine included Comeback in its 2019 list of the best coffee shops in America.
Things are looking up in the Pinch lately.
St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is expanding their campus with a $412 million advanced research center, which is scheduled to open in 2021, and the convention center is under renovation.
Both are expected to bring more traffic, and eventually business, to the Pinch District.
“We’ve sat down with St. Jude and ALSAC, and they have been incredible partners. We’re excited about their developments and what that means for business and the community,” Hayes says. “We’re starting to see more little lots around us being bought up.”
In mid-November, New York developer Tom Intrator proposed plans for a $1 billion Pinch development, which would include 942 residential units, two boutique hotels, 170,000 square feet of retail space and 222,000 square feet of office space.
“I would love to see more locally owned retail shops,” Amy says. “Retail on the bottom floors, living space above.”
As the district changes, Hayes and Amy plan to be faithful to Comeback’s mission of making customers feel like family.
“This area has potential to be a real community spot,” adds Hayes. “Whatever happens around us, we’re staying true to that. We’re here for the ride anyway.”
Bianca Phillips writes about vegan food (and shares images of everything she eats) on her blog, Vegan Crunk. She’s the author of Cookin’ Crunk: Eatin’ Vegan in the Dirty South. By day she works as the communications coordinator for Crosstown Arts/Crosstown Concourse. She and her partner, Paul, are the proud parents of five cats and one very stubborn (but adorable) pit bull. @biancaphillips
Michael Butler, Jr. loves everything Memphis. His goal is to show the beauty in Memphis that others overlook. He’s a photographer, videographer, Memphis tee collector, foodie, lover of tacos and mayor of South Memphis. @_one901