TJ Fairchild will tell you he might not be the best at business or serving coffee.
It’s a telling admission from an entrepreneur who runs several Pittsburgh coffee shops. But the Commonplace Coffee owner says from the beginning he’s been awoken in the night by worries over the ins and outs of business – now because his 65 employees dot across six locations with a seventh on the way, then because starting a business in a town, site unseen, was a daring bet.
Fairchild arrived in Indiana, Pennsylvania in 2003, directionless, with his wife Julie and a Volkswagen van on a tip from a college friend. The bet? Reopen a closed coffee shop on the edge of Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s campus.
Twenty years later, the business named after a Walt Whitman poem is doing just that, but with a focus on connectivity and family – and with a careful philosophical vision. Pittsburgh, with its neighborhood shops dotting the landscape, was ranked seventh in a WalletHub survey of the nation’s best coffee cities.
“There’s something really beautiful and vulnerable and the fact that when you walk into a coffee shop, the work is all like an exposed kitchen in a restaurant,” says Fairchild, who sports a long beard and shoulder-length hair. “There’s no place to hide from the guests. You’re engaged with them.”
And that’s where he likes to be. He recalls a family vacation seeing a short-order cook serve up food for all walks of life in a restaurant, seeds planted in his mind at 12 about how food and drink can connect people.
“I love when I overhear a conversation between a couple people that it’s obvious they would not have ever had that conversation if they would not have bumped into each other in a coffee shop,” he tells Pittsburgh City Paper. “One of those people may be wearing a suit and the other person may be wearing whatever the antithesis of a suit is.”
Restaurants and coffee shops like it are sort of last outposts where enjoyment isn’t restricted by time.
“To get the sweetest, most flavorful experience from coffee, the water temperature has to be very high,” Fairchild tells City Paper, explaining how the drink must be left to cool before it can truly be enjoyed with all its flavors. “Coffee really (is) giving us some life lessons … to take time to respond in a heated situation or really listen to a friend or really give due consideration to a problem at hand before we make a judgment or response to that.”
Commonplace’s Indiana location in March celebrated its 20th anniversary, complete with a birthday potluck, slideshow, documentary premiere and drink specials. In those two decades since opening, things have changed. There’s an employee manual, organization chart and wholesale and consulting business that has worked with more than 100 shops over the years.
They roast 2,500 pounds of coffee a week. The team – it’s not just TJ and Julie anymore – is growing and more diverse and smarter, just like a child growing up.
“The DNA is evolving with how the business is growing,” Fairchild says. “I describe it as a human being born, growing, maturing at different age levels. That’s easy for me to do. We’re 20 years old. Our oldest child is 19. We’re able to see it in real time.”
On a recent Monday afternoon, one of the shops is filled with students working on schoolwork. Another woman is editing a video, while a couple talks and a father and son sit in the corner playing Connect 4. There are also game nights, art adorning the walls and a coffee and cars monthly event that brings together food, drink and unique vehicles.
With 20 years in business, there are regulars. There are also those who started as customers of the Indiana location and have since migrated to Pittsburgh.
“I can’t even believe I get to be part of people’s lives like that, Commonplace gets to be part of people’s lives like that,” Fairchild says. “It’s very life-affirming. I don’t know that many industries you get to experience that level of connection with other humans.”
Fairchild likes to use DNA in describing Commonplace and his methodology in business. A philosophy student in graduate school, he speaks thoughtfully and carefully, employing surfing analogies and introspective language. It’s this pensiveness that gives him slow appreciation for his surroundings, but also jealousy of friends in different businesses with quicker approaches and better intuition.
But that’s who he is, the unlikely head of a business responsible for giving people sustenance – his words – for their jobs. Almost poetically, that start came in Indiana, Pennsylvania, birthplace of star Jimmy Stewart whose character in “It’s a Wonderful Life” loses money but becomes rich in another sense. It’s not lost when Fairchild talks of other, more lucrative business avenues.
“You certainly can get richer from other things from a financial standpoint,” he says, “but I’m not sure it gets much richer than observing someone starting to engage with another human and they become significant others, start a family together and a life together and getting to be a part of that potentially even meeting their children and become part of their children’s lives. To me, that’s the richest we can become as humans.”