Feature: Place To Be

spot

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A coffee shop, café, ice-cream parlor, art gallery and entertainment venue rolled into one, The Spot is a popular hangout for area visitors and natives.

by ANITA STIEFEL

Lori and Justin Sweeney aptly named the business they opened in downtown Fort Payne, Ala., in April 2013. The Spot quickly became the place to be for young and old, locals and tourists alike.

The New Orleans natives had always wanted to open a coffee shop, but had no experience running a business when “everything just fell into place,” as Lori Sweeney puts it.

“Sometimes certain things are just meant to be,” Justin says. “When the path is laid out before you, you have to trust that and go with it.”

Set in a nearly century-old building at the corner of Gault Avenue and First Street on the main route through town, the popular hangout serves the “Best Coffee in DeKalb County,” according to a vote by readers of the local newspaper.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]The Sweeneys describe their business as a combination coffee shop, café, ice-cream parlor, art gallery, music venue, video-game lounge and private party facility. Wi-fi is free for customers, and there are ample electrical outlets for charging computers and cell phones.

But while The Spot is up on the latest technology, upon entering visitors are immediately drawn to the historic architecture of the former hardware-store building, including the original, stamped-tin ceiling and cast-iron pillars.

The laid-back atmosphere of The Spot is unmistakable, with mismatched tables and chairs, vintage couches and comfy recliners arranged around coffee tables in front of gas fireplaces, and an antique piano set up in the corner. A large, U-shaped bar anchors the open space. The place feels like home, and customers are treated like family.

It’s around 10 a.m. when a gentleman enters and announces, “I was told to come here and get a Shot in the Dark. I’ve been up for 36 hours straight and I’m not done yet.”

“How did you hear about us?” Justin Sweeney asks as he prepares the specialty coffee for the customer, Mark Jagoe, who is a Fort Payne native now living in Virginia.

“My cousin, Gene Beck, told me to come here. He said if you need to wake up, your famous Shot in the Dark would do the trick,” Jagoe explained. “I’ve been driving all night to get here. I have to go do some family business at the bank that I need to be alert for.”

A few sips of his double-shot espresso later, Jagoe perks up.

“This is a really neat place. I really love the art,” he says, looking around at the many paintings, drawings, framed photography, stained glass, wood carvings and other art lining the walls. “I’ve never been here before, but I’ll come back.”

All the artwork was created by locals and is for sale.

Along with organic, fair-trade Larry’s Beans coffee, The Spot serves bagels, muffins, pastries and breakfast sandwiches.

Lunch and dinner are offered daily, with menu items including French-bread pizza, panini sandwiches, soups and salads, pastries and desserts.

After school and into the evening, the younger crowd is drawn by The Spot’s frozen, blended drinks, Blue Bell ice cream and a downstairs video-game lounge that features four big-screen TVs, several gaming chairs, three X-Box 360 consoles, a Playstation 3 and a large collection of games. Customers pay by the hour, or they can rent the video lounge for parties. Upstairs, visitors are invited to play with a large selection of board games. There is a stage for musical performances, and every other Friday is Open-Mic Night.

The Sweeneys’ journey to Fort Payne was circuitous. After being displaced from their New Orleans home when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, the newlyweds were homeless for a month, traveling first to Texas, then Virginia, then Asheville, N.C., where they settled for seven years.

Lori took a job with the Autism Society of North Carolina, working with children and young adults and their families. Justin worked as a therapist for Eliada Homes, a network of foster homes. When the Sweeneys decided to foster a child at their home, they received “a blessing in disguise,” Justin says.

“We ended up with an extremely difficult, troubled young boy,” he explains. “He had been kicked out of second grade twice and was prone to violence. He had a difficult early childhood, living out of a car with his drug-addict mother.”

Justin says he could relate to the boy, having come from a similar situation himself. He took a year off work to focus on the child’s special needs.

“Four months later, he was a different kid, after experiencing love, patience, stability and consistency,” Justin says. “He had been in survival mode for so long, the only way he knew how to get attention was to act crazy.”

The boy has since been reunited with his father and is thriving. The Sweeneys stay in touch.

“Working with that kid, I feel like the luckiest man in the world,” Justin says. “It did as much for me personally as him. It gave me such an opportunity to grow as a person.”

Ironically, the Sweeneys were in search of a city bigger than Ashville when they landed in rural Alabama and ended up staying. They sold their home and almost all their possessions before driving west in a pickup truck with a pull-behind camper. Drawn to its outdoor-recreation scene, they were headed to Boise, Idaho, when they stopped in Fort Payne.

They found the building that houses the Big Mill Co. Artisans & Antiques interesting, so they went inside and began chatting with owner Lynn Brewer. Justin asked if she had ever considered turning the second floor of the building into a coffee shop.

“Opening a coffee shop was our dream,” Lori says. “I grew up hanging out in coffee shops.”

Justin even credits a coffee shop in New Orleans for bringing the couple together. “I met her once, then by chance I ran into her at a coffee shop about six months later. And then she moved 3,000 miles away to Seattle,” he laughs. “We kept in touch for over a year, then on her second day back I asked her to marry me.”

In Fort Payne, Brewer handed over a key to a building she and her husband, Steve, own in the middle of downtown and told them to check it out. “We just fell in love with it,” Lori says.

And they were charmed by the town, too.

“We knew what kind of town this was when Lynn gave us the key to this place not knowing us for more than five minutes,” Justin says. “That says a lot about the people.”

They found the same attitude everywhere, with residents eager to help them turn the old brick building on the corner into their dream. Inspired, the Sweeneys decided to stay and invested all their savings in starting the business.

“I’ve lived in big cities my whole life, so getting used to a small town was a challenge for me at first,” Lori admits. “But small-town life is growing on me. The people are friendly, there’s no traffic and things are just a little simpler here.”

A young couple enters The Spot and orders a cappuccino and a latté, the staple drinks of an authentic coffee shop. “Thank goodness we found this place,” says Krista Reichel, who was traveling on Interstate 59 with her friend Nathan Cox on their way home to Washington, D.C. “We’ve been using our cell phone to search on Google for a coffee shop – there aren’t a lot of Starbucks down here.”

“How does it taste?” Justin asks.

“Mmmm,” Nathan says with a grin. “I give it six stars out of five.”

The Spot is open Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. Visitors can dine in or call 256-979-1287 for take-out orders.[/s2If]