Black Bison owners acquire Sweet Bay

by Tina Alvey Dale ([email protected]) 9,848 views 

A popular Fort Smith coffee shop may have new ownership, but the menu and name will remain the same. However, one of the three store locations will close, according to the new owners.

When news of Carey Thompson and Josh Palmer, owners of Black Bison Coffee Co. in Fort Smith, buying Sweet Bay Coffee Co. hit social media over last week, negative comments ran rampant. There was talk of a big business buying a small locally owned coffee company, closing locations and firing employees.

What really happened is the Lawrence Lee family decided to sell the coffee shop company it opened in the Fort Smith area in 1996. Thompson and Palmer, who were hoping to expand their coffee roasting business into a coffee shop, realized the opportunity would be a perfect fit.

“Carey and I have the gift shop, and we were more an e-commerce, wholesale provider of our roasted coffee,” Palmer said. “The Lee family wanted to sell (Sweet Bay). Dr. Lee and his wife, Linda, wanted to enjoy their retirement.”

Along with purchase price, new equipment and product additions, Palmer said the initial investment in the coffee shops is in the $2 million range.

Palmer and Thompson, both Fort Smith natives, opened Black Bison Coffee in 2019. They opened a gift store that sold their product and other wares in the 110-year-old barn that was once Ozark Mountain Smokehouse restaurant on 87th Street in Fort Smith.

“At the time we wanted to open a coffee shop, but it was a century old barn. Parking was limited. It wasn’t feasible. We opened a gift shop instead,” Parker said.

The coffee roasting is done off-site by a veteran roaster who has been making their coffee from a blend of beans for the past five years, Thompson said.

“We love the idea of the opportunity to get our coffee into Sweet Bay,” she said.

Sweet Bay now purchases its coffee from a coffee roaster in Eureka Springs. Thompson said they would eventually like to work in Black Bison coffee but that won’t happen immediately.

Though the couple is now the new owner of Sweet Bay, the name is not going to change to Black Bison. It will remain Sweet Bay, and the menu will stay the same. The locations, with the exception of the Van Buren store, will remain open, Thompson said.

“The Van Buren location was just not a great location for Sweet Bay. It wasn’t profitable. We had to close it, but the Park location (beside Creekmore Park at 3400 Rogers Ave.) and the east side location (at 7908 Rogers Ave.) are both open and have the same hours,” Thompson said. “We did close the east side location for a few days for cleaning and some other work, but it reopened Saturday (March 4).”

The owners also did not lay off or fire employees as has been mentioned in some social media posts. When they took over ownership of the coffee shops, Black Bison had employees reapply for their jobs as many companies do when they are sold. Some employees reapplied while others chose not to, Thompson said.

“There’s this rumor that we came in and cleaned house and started firing people. We have 40 employees right now. We are Fort Smith people employing Fort Smith people, or people from the Fort Smith area, to service local people,” Palmer said.

While Thompson said there is no immediate plan to change the prices of menu items, there is a chance prices will increase for the same reason prices on all goods have increased over the past couple of years.

Other changes are in the plans. Palmer said they hope to improve drive-thru service to make it more efficient and quick. That could mean moving the menu board or it could mean taking note from 7 Brew and having an employee with a tablet outside taking orders to speed the process. They do not have an exact plan yet.

Eventually the owners hope to bring their gift shop to the park location and perhaps the east side location if feasible. They would sell their bags of coffee and other products.

“We have had a great partnership with Joe (Caldarera) at Talianos. We’ve sold his frozen dinners in our gift shop (on 87th Street.) We’d like to do that with other Fort Smith places as well,” Palmer said.

There are talks about contracting with Harvest Moon Bakery in Fort Smith to provide their bread products at the shops, he said.

“Our philosophy is to keep things local. Some things we have to get elsewhere, like avocados. But if we could get locally grown avocados, we would,” Palmer said.