(Photo by Isaac Harrell)
Danny and Tiffany Ingram were in search of a new business venture in early 2011 when they noticed a Craigslist ad for a free coffee shop in Mechanicsville, including the equipment. All they had to do was assume the lease.
They had been booking bands at venues such as Plaza Bowl and The Triple, but business was dwindling. When they acquired Coffee Lane Café in the Shoppes at Bell Creek, Tiffany — an experienced server and bartender — had never touched an espresso machine. "I got second-degree burns on my hands," she says. They had so little startup money that they sold the café's TVs to buy food and supplies. They created a lounge area by bringing couches, bookshelves and a record player from home and decorating the walls with their art.
The coffeehouse lacked kitchen equipment, so they bought an inexpensive griddle and began serving a limited menu with Reubens and club sandwiches. Danny and Tiffany baked desserts and pastries in their Church Hill apartment. Regulars donated silverware, cups and plates. From February to April, the two ran the café by themselves, from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. While they developed their customer base, Tiffany moonlighted as a bartender at The Camel. After work, she and Danny would bake muffins and cookies. She'd take naps in Coffee Lane's office.
"We were working really hard, blinking back tears because we were so tired," Tiffany says.
But customers responded, and business picked up. A $5,000 investment from one patron enabled them to secure a food supplier. They added a convection oven, a double burner and a refrigerated sandwich-prep unit. (Danny says that at one point, he was preparing five-course dinners out of an Otis Spunkmeyer cookie oven that operated on only one temperature.) They hired employees, and Tiffany began working in the kitchen alongside Danny — who credits Ted Santarella of Tarrant's Café with inspiring him to make great food with such meager resources.
Between Christmas and New Year's, they spruced up the place and reopened as Bell Café, reflecting a shift to a full-service restaurant. On New Year's Eve, they served a sold-out eight-course dinner. Bell Café's dinner menu features entrées like filet mignon in a sherry Dijon sauce topped with crabmeat, and seared scallops topped with bacon and roasted red pepper.
Still, Danny says he's limited by the slow electric equipment he's been using. They plan to run gas into the building and install a new stove and hood vent. But as the result of building the business gradually, he says, "we have zero debt." Spending so much time together doesn't seem to have hurt their relationship, either. The couple just tied the knot on June 3, about five years after Tiffany spotted Danny at Star-lite in the Fan and decided to talk to the 6-foot-3, tattooed redhead whose baseball cap read "Wasted" — for the band Municipal Waste. "We've been working beside each other ever since we met," Danny says. "We click."